Last year, I asked one of the girls I coached, where she wanted to go to college.
She was a sophomore and had just joined our newly formed club, a bench warming five-minute-a-gamer from her old team.
“Oh I’m not good enough to play in college,” she said both meekly and laced in fact.
“Who told you that?” I asked half in anger and half in amazement
“My coach last year”
“Well, you’re with us now, and we think you are good enough to play in college, so start thinking about it.”
“Ok I will,” she said shyly looking at me like she thought I was half crazy for telling her it was a possibility.
I have gotten into this conversation a lot lately with friends that play and coach that essentially amounts to our beliefs on a fixed or a growth mindset.
A fixed mindset amounts to believing that ability is inherently equated with natural ability, while a growth mindset takes on the view that with a lot of work, people can surpass and make up for a lack of “natural talent”.
I personally believe talent = activity + time + good coaching, and it is something that is fluid. My own experience has shaped my conclusion, which I will touch on later.
My friend, a top coach, who subscribes strongly to the growth mindset when working with players, was watching a US National Team game and heard the description by announcers of how “naturally talented” two of the athletes he has trained, Christen Press and Alex Morgan were. He fumed as he felt it took away the real message of how they became so good: their insane work ethics.
I’ve also heard coaches describe eleven year olds as “bad” or “untalented”, gladly stacking their teams with the “talented” ones so they can reassure themselves of their superior coaching abilities with a cabinet full of trophies and medals.
An argument I hear preached against the growth mindset philosophy: it’s dangerous to give kids the message that they can do anything. It gives them an unrealistic view of their abilities and possibilities, leaving parents that have unrealistic expectations and players that are devastated by not reaching their goals.
To this I say,
- Nothing is ever guaranteed and it’s definitely not a smart thing to have players think that something is a sure thing because nothing in life is
- Part of being a good coach in my opinion, is fostering a love of the process in players and separating that from an outcome because the true of joy in anything is being passionate about something, putting time in to master it, and recognizing your growth
- Part of being a good coach is also pulling up the level of your weakest players. Everyone can feel good and give themselves, credit for the player that picks up everything at first glance or scores 4 goals without trying. In my opinion the great coaches are the ones that are able to figure out the kids that don’t get things on the first try and figure out a way to get through to them and raise their level
- And if a player is really “that bad”? If you don’t think a player is at a level to hang, don’t take them on the team and leave them at an appropriate level in the first place where they will have a coach that sees a benefit at working with them at their level.
- The level of coaching that players receive plays a massive role on if they are “bad” or “good”. I had my Dad until I was twelve as my primary teacher, who knew nothing about soccer outside of his Saturday morning Premier Game watching, while friends with father’s that played themselves developed a far better aptitude quickly. “Bad” players, especially young ones, can quickly become “good” players with good coaching and that is what you, as a coach, are there for.
In my opinion the equation to accomplish anything and the estimate of possibility if it will happen is
What the goal is = Where your ability is at now + the amount of quality, properly taught work you put in/The time you have to accomplish the goal.
After listening to me spout off my optimistic opinions highlighted above (a friend’s brother once called myself and his sister “children of the stars” for our hippy like opposite to his “realistic” opinions), my friend said to me,
My skeptical friend: “So you’re trying to say I could have been a champion ballerina if I wanted to”
My answer: Yes, if you set that goal when you were seven years old and worked every day at it and made lifestyle choices accordingly. If you set that goal a couple of years ago, no I don’t think it would have been realistic or possible.
My skeptical friend (A casual fifteen year national team starter for her country): “But I didn’t try hard or put extra time into soccer at all and there were other people that put in massive amounts of time and didn’t go anywhere with it.”
My answer: Yes, but you had an older sister that played so I’m guessing you got dragged to games and benefitted from her learning, and you played at the youth national team level for handball, which was essentially an immense amount of time that you spent on an activity that made you into a better goalkeeper, which you didn’t consciously do. So even though in your mind you weren’t working hard or spending extra time out on the field, you’d accumulated those hours already and then likely were getting the most qualified coaches training you because you showed aptitude at a young age.
I’d also (perhaps controversially) would venture to also say that many coaches quickly brushing down aspirations of players haven’t gone after and accomplished an “impossible” goal themselves and/or don’t know how to provide a pathway of knowledge to get there, so it’s easier just to tell people not to bother or that they aren’t good enough. With this fixed mindset their own weaknesses are not exposed because they too are released from even having to try.
Like I said earlier, we come at life from our own lens, and for me, I went from benchwarmer on my club team in grade 9, to NCAA Division 1 player 4 years later, and from bench player on my college team to a pro contract on a Champions League Final team 2 years later.
My primary assets were belief in myself, the ability to deal constructively with failure and adversity and the time I was willing to put in to become better. More importantly perhaps, I was blessed with coaches along the way that even if I wasn’t a top player on a team, were willing to take time with me to teach me, and always made me feel like anything I put my mind to was a possibility.
I am forever grateful for that gift and it’s something that I believe every person deserves. As coaches we are in the unique position to truly change lives and more importantly to teach the lesson that while hard work doesn’t guarantee anything, following your passion and giving your best self every day towards a goal is one of the most rewarding ways to spend your life. Yes, nothing is guaranteed, they are possible, and why not set the bar high for our athletes and support them as they work hard towards reaching it.
And back to that player, that told me her sophomore year that she wasn’t good enough to play in college? Well that kid took every single tool we gave her, and busted her ass on and off the field for the last year and a half, getting rejected too many times to count along the way.
After getting told harshly by two Division 3 coaches in the course of a week that she wasn’t good enough for their D3 programs, a few days later she played out of her mind in our State Cup Semi-Final in front of a coach that she had taken the time to write to ask to come and watch her.
She’ll be playing next fall at a NCAA Division 2 school, solidifying my opinion that every player deserves to have a coach with a growth mindset. I will forever tear up telling her story because I am so proud of her for believing in herself and for putting the time in to accomplish something that at one point seemed impossible. Every player and person deserves someone around encouraging them to at least give their dreams a chance.
That is more important that anything on the field you could ever teach them.
** On a sidenote I randomly came across this fantastic blog that dealt with this exact subject minutes after posting this one. Worth reading (many of the articles): Click Here
I call it ” finding the 10 year old that shaves” to describe the coaches that gather the most mature players they can find and then teach them nothing but dump and run plus aggressiveness until any chance the players had of developing is gone and the coach has moved on to the next group of players they will destroy while feeding their ego.
I can also tell you that being present when your players shake the hand of a college coach that told them they just weren’t good enough after her team defeated them because she found a coach that believed in her is an experience you will cherish forever.
Your article is so important. Thank you.
Thanks for taking the time to read Chuck. Moments when you help propel people towards their own self-belief is in my opinion what makes the opportunity to coach such a gift. I love your story of that player.