Coaches: Memory Makers and Identity Shapers

I have played hours and hours of soccer in my life, but I can only really recall three or four games from my younger days that make me smile to think about them. I recall a few other moments, but none that make me stop and enjoy the moment as much as these few. The common factor in the ones that make me smile is that they were games I gave my all and felt that I had performed as well as possible, and even then I don’t recall the whole game, just special moments.
In fact, thinking back, of the games I felt I played the best we lost one 2-1 (I scored), another one we got mashed (I scored our only goal), and another one I have no idea what the score was (I definitely didn’t score, but another kid and I had obviously had a bad week and decided to spend 90 minutes kicking lumps out of each other). I also remember one other game in which I didn’t score. I should have, the ball rolled past me and I thought it was going in from the original shot but went inches wide. I could have been the hero… I think that was 3-3, I should have made it 4. In three of these games I couldn’t have given more. The interesting thing is that while many of the few memories I do have are about scoring goals, I have forgotten the majority of goals I have scored. I only remember the ones where I gave it everything and worked hard for it.
When a player has worked hard a coach has the ability to make a player feel great about what they have done, and work harder, whether the team won or lost. Coaches have the ability to give players memories that will stay with them a lifetime, reinforcing hard work and effort, and reducing pain from things a player cannot control. The key is really to decide what the coach wants to focus on, because they have the ability to shape the identity of a kid at crucial stages of development. If the coach praises the kid who scores lots of goals by standing on the 6-yard box and knocking them in, the kid will carry the identity of the player who scores goals. He will never improve. Why would he? He is receiving praise for something he doesn’t even have to work at and his identity will take a hit as he gets older and doesn’t have the habit or self-awareness to recognise his need to grow and be coachable.
But what of the player who goes away and works hard day after day and can create goals all day through pinpoint passing? Shouldn’t his or her identity be based on being the player who works hard? They may be the reason the kid on the 6 yard line is able to score so much, but only one of these players will be a star player on their next team. Shouldn’t we praise the hard-work and dedication first? As coaches, shouldn’t our eye be towards development and seeing growth before we see the fancy footwork and goals?
Here are the three take aways for today:
1 – We need to praise hard work, dedication and improvement. As an adult we respond well when someone recognises our work, and the positive things we base our identity on, much more than the outcomes. Ultimately, anyone at any level cannot fail to see results improve if they focus first and foremost on their performance. Christiano Ronaldo is a living testimony of this fact. In comparing Messi to Ronaldo, Ronaldo’s one-time Portuguese team-mate Deco stated:
“They are completely different. Though Messi takes care of himself like a normal athlete, Ronaldo is unbelievable. It borders on sickness because he always wants to be the best at his job. He competes in everything.”
2 – Hard work, dedication, and performance can, and often do make up the difference between those who have natural talent in abundance and those who put the effort in. The focus, always, must be on performance. Performance will bring results, and results will bring confidence. But more than that – the memories our youth will remember in years to come won’t be all of the goals or special moves, they will be highlights that will only come about through hard work. They will remember performances when they stood out. We all do – our kids are creating those highlight reels in their heads today.
3 – People behave in a manner according to their identity. It’s how stereotyping works. You have low expectations of someone, they will perform to that low expectation. You expect great things, they will be great. If you allow hard work and practice at pinpoint passing to go unnoticed, and yet praise the kid who scores 3 goals a game while standing on the 6 yard line, eventually the goals will dry up. The kid who had something to offer and never received praise for his hard work will stop trying, then where do the goals come from?
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