Whether you are a player looking for some extra advice to take your game to the next level, or a parent who wants to support an aspiring player, I wanted to share some tips and advice from a career of playing the beautiful game.
This is something just a little different from what we normally focus on (soccer footwear) but it is something I’ve been thinking about for the past few weeks and felt the need to share. From playing semi-pro in Ireland, to winning a National Championship at UCSB, followed by a US Open Cup win and MLS Cup final defeat, winning a PDL title at Ventura County Fusion, and then nearly a decade playing Sunday league with multiple successful teams, I’ve learned a lot of pretty important lessons along the way.
#1 – Be A Student Of The Game
No matter how good you are, you can always become better. Be humble, show humility, open your mind to learn from those with experience in the game. Take what you are given and apply it in your game. One of the things I loved doing growing up was finding players that played my position and watched them play games. For example, Andrei Kanchelskis, Damian Duff and Arjen Robben were all wingers that I loved watching. I’d key in on them during games and track their movement, look for ways they beat players and watched their timing on passes and crosses. In practice or games, I’d try to replicate what they did. I obviously failed a lot, but I also learned what worked best for my skill set.
#2 – Set Short Term Goals
Every soccer player out there dreams become of becoming a pro player. Speaking from experience, when you get there it is the absolute best feeling in the world. But, for every player that makes it, there are 100 others that don’t. Rather than just daydreaming about it, start making some short term goals that will help you get there. It could be as simple as setting a new juggling goal and practicing until you get it. It could be working on your shooting, for example you could set a goal to hit 3 crossbars in a row (the crossbar challenge.) Maybe you set a goal to score 5 goals and 5 assists in your next 10 games. Whatever it is, create attainable goals that will help improve your skills and keep you focused on improving every day.
#3 – Success Comes From Failure
Every player out there – and I mean EVERY player – has experienced defeat at some point. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have faced plenty of disappointment through their careers. The key is not always winning, it is what you do when you face defeat. Are you going to feel sorry for yourself, put your head down and sulk about it. Or, are you going to get right back on the horse and find ways to make sure it doesn’t happen next time you find yourself in that situation. It is about how you bounce back, looking at your flaws and finding ways to fix them, lifting up your teammates by showing them you want to be better, you are not willing to settle for second best.
In 2004, we lost the National Championship final on penalties to Indiana. In 2006, 10 players from that squad returned to the final vs UCLA. Prior to the game, we talked about the pain of losing in 2004 and not wanting to feel that pain again. We very well might have, but if we did, we would go down fighting. After the first 20 minutes, we had scored and hit the post twice. We came out firing, wanting to put the 2004 loss in the past.
#4 – Learn From Better Players
When I played at New England Revolution, there was a right midfielder named Steve Ralston in the squad. In my opinion, he is the best right mid to ever play in MLS. He was so much better than me and I knew there was no way I was going to take his starting spot. But what I was able tom do was take advantage of the opportunity to watch him, study his game, play alongside him and develop my skill set from his experience. I’d ask him questions about taking on players, how he found the right moment to play crosses, what he was looking for from strikers in order to play them the right ball. As a result, my game improved dramatically and I’ve taken that experience with me through my entire career.
The same runs through for every player at every level. Look at players that play your position and find a way to benefit from studying their style of play. If it is a player on your team that you are fighting for playing time with, don’t see them as an enemy. Instead, see them as the challenge. You need to improve your game to their level in order to win a starting spot.
#5 – Talk To Your Coaches
This is one that a lot of players fail to take advantage of, usually because of intimidation or a fear of being seen as weak by coaches. But, what coaches want to see is a willingness and desire from players to improve. If you are a fringe player, ask for tips or advice on where you can improve to help the team. Be smart about this one, don’t approach with an “I want to be the best player” approach, instead focus on what you need to do in order to make the coaches life easier.
If you can take the advice your coach gives you and apply it in practice and a game, it gives you a platform to prove you are the player that the coach can work with to produce results. Always look for ways to improve, no matter how small they are. Be the first to show up to practice and the last to leave. Show your coaches that you are committed for the long term.
Another example, when I was around 14, a friend of my Dad and a former pro player came out to watch one of my games. I remember thinking I had played really well, scored some goals and we won the game. After the game, Blocker (my Dad’s friend) came up and offered two pieces of advice: stop with the silly goal celebrations, and when whipping in crosses look to strike the ball closer to the middle. He gave a demo, worked with me crossing 5 or 6 balls, and I remember it being a revelation. He didn’t spend time talking about how well I had played or complimenting the times I beat players. Instead, he found an area where he could help me improve. My decision to embrace his advice and apply it to my game made a huge difference long term.
#6 – Comfort Creates Confidence
This one does comes directly from our experience in the footwear industry. When it comes to your boots, having a pair that fits well and matches your playing style is going to allow you to play your game without distraction. Being comfortable creates confidence, and confidence allows you to be your best self on the pitch. If your boots fit too big or there is a particular part of the boot that doesn’t match your foot shape, you are going to find yourself focusing on it during play. And that will take away from your performance.
This is especially true when it comes to new soccer cleats. Make sure you have a chance to break them in, wear test them in practice, let them adjust to your foot shape, before breaking them into a game. Something as simple as wearing them around the house at home can make a huge difference. Allow yourself to experience the fit and shape in a more relaxed environment. One of the worst things you can experience is playing an important game and feeling discomfort after five minutes in a new pair. Along those lines, always have a trusty back-up pair on hand, some boots you know you can switch into in any situation!
#7 – Work Hard, Play Smarter
For most coaches, it is working hard and showing commitment that earns their trust. When you are on the pitch, give 100%. Close down opposing players fast, help your teammates, talk and communicate, make smart decisions on the ball. There are also a few don’t that will make you a smarter player. Like, for example, don’t duck out of 50/50 challenges and don’t run around the pitch like a headless chicken. There are times when it is worth chasing lost cause, but there is also a valid case to say a left back should never be tracking a player near the oppositions corner flag.
#8 – Teammates Work For Each Other
If your teammate loses the ball, see it as your opportunity to win it back. If you lose the ball, thank your teammate when they win it back. This one is simple, good teammates give everything for each other, they work hard and fight together through the good and the bad moments.
#9 – Respect The Game and The Player
Players – this one is not for you. It is for parents. For and foremost, don’t be “that parent” on the sideline, yelling and screaming, barking instruction to your player, trying your best to enforce your ideas on the team. For the most part, this all comes with good intentions and emotions can easily spill over when you are truly invested in a game. But, you need to let the coach do his job and you have to let your player be expressive, free of fear and pressure, making decisions for themselves, learning from the mistakes and the moments of magic. Don’t spend time yelling at officials – show respect like you expect your son or daughter to do on the pitch.
Trust me, players will respond more positively to positive cheers and applause than to yelling and advice from people sitting in chairs on the sideline. Your responsibility as a parent is to help your player enjoy the game, let them be expressive and have fun. If you have a player that can share a brief smile whether the game ended in a win or a loss, you are doing your job!
#10 – You Don’t Need An Audience
You don’t need an audience to become a better player. The best time to work harder is when no one else is watching. That is a motto to live by, and if you follow it you will succeed in whatever it is you do. If you want to really set a statement, get out into an empty field alone and work your butt off to improve. Take any opportunity to get a little extra work in. Then, when you are with your teammates, let them see how your extra practice is paying off. Show them you are a leader, someone who not only “wants” to take their game to the next level but puts the hard work in to get there.
“The vision of a champion is someone who is bent over, drenched in sweat, at the point of exhaustion when nobody else is watching.” Anson Dorrance