We had a fantastic speaker come into talk to my team, the Newcastle Jets last night. And in amongst the many wise things he had to say, he spoke about making your strengths exceptional. He mentioned Messi, and said in 5 components of soccer, Messi was only exceptional in 3 capacities. But he was so good in those 3 that it rendered the fact that he wasn’t as strong in the other 2 areas, as insignificant.
It got me thinking of a conversation I had with a friend many years ago, one of the most incredible people I have ever come across in soccer and more importantly in life.
Amber Allen is a good friend of mine, and has one of the most inspiring stories of any person I have ever played soccer with. She played for Canada for many years, and was named to the 2008 Olympic Team.
One of the most impressive things about Amber was that she took four years off soccer after she graduated from high school.
Inspired at the funeral of a high school classmate and how he had used his gifts to the fullest, Amber had a nagging thought that she still had something left to give on the soccer field despite the fact she hadn’t played a competitive game in 4 years.
Most people, after taking off four years and just lacing their boots up again, would settle on making their local premier league team, but not Amber. She decided that she was going to play for Canada.
And 1½ years later, in 2002, she made her debut for the Canadian National Team.
As a player, Amber was very fast and had a knack for being able to put the ball in the back of the net, a valuable commodity at any level of the game.
She also gave me a great piece of advice that I’d like to pass on to younger players coming up through the ranks and probably a good one for us all to remind ourselves with, as I think it is applicable to many things in life that we strive for excellence in.
The advice stemmed from a casual conversation we had one day, when we were talking about our various training regimes. I was the kind of player that didn’t have much focus in my training. I ran, did dribbling exercises, and did passing exercises against the wall by myself.
Because of this lack of specific focus in my training, I often overtrained and was injured, and as a player I was good at a lot of things, but not exceptional at anything. I was always keen to learn how to become better and looked up to people like Amber as mentors on and off the field.
She said something like this to me: “Ciara, my job at the highest level is to score goals. Therefore, when I train, I focus on three or four things and that’s it.
“I work on my acceleration and speed, I work on my crossing and I work on my finishing.
“I know that I missed out on four years of soccer, so I know that I am not going to ever be the most technical player on the field. That being said, I know I’m fast and I know that I can score goals, so I just work on getting better and better at that, so I have a special quality to contribute when I am out on the field.”
I started looking around at other players at the national team level or teammates on my professional teams and, as I looked down the list, I realized that every single person had a skill that made them special.
They all had one or two things that when you heard their name, you immediately thought of a quality or two that clearly defined who they were as players.
I believe that when players are younger, they need to be developing technical skill and tactical understanding in quality environments with quality coaches. They need to be developing a love of the game, and playing other sports to acquire skills that give them a good athletic base to work from.
Once players reach their teenage years, it becomes more obvious where their skills lie – and for players to continue to ascend levels, it is important to hone in on one or two skills that truly makes them special.
I read a quote by Lance Armstrong that spoke about the word “deliberate” in terms of what he felt gave him a special edge in his training (this was before we learned about the drugs that gave him his other special edge-but the advice is still applicable I feel). While it’s important to always continue making your weaknesses better, at the same time it is just as important to continue to work on what you are really good at in a focused manner.
Coaches might take you on a team if you have no left foot, if, let’s say, you win every single ball in the air.
Having no left foot might catch up with you at some point, and that is why it is important not to completely neglect what you are not good at. But always work on what you are already good at to make yourself exceptional at it.
But make no mistake, it wasn’t just exceptional speed and finishing ability that got Amber onto the national team and to be a fixture there for a good part of a decade. She coupled the immense physical gifts that she was given with an ability to overcome all kinds of adversity that was thrown her way.
Between 2002-2008 she broke her leg twice, tore her ACL the day she started her first game for Canada a couple of months before she would have likely been named to the 2003 World Cup team, and took six months off of the game to be with her Dad while he battled terminal cancer. I’m not going to lie when I said I cried when I heard that she had been named to the 2008 Olympic team after having a front row seat for years as I watched the grace, steely determination, and incredible work ethic she faced everything with. Her example is still something I hold close to me as I go through my own adversity in soccer and in life.
As a player and a person, Amber taught me that with the proper focus in training in making your strengths exceptional, coupled with determination, anything is possible.