creating “elite” little ones

So I’m sitting on the sidelines watching some talented little 10-year old girls buzz around the pitch last weekend, and I couldn’t help but overhear all of the discussions going on around me.  The girls were remarkable.  A number of descriptors were apt: fast, skilled, tremendous off-the-ball movement, tough, aggressive, great anticipation, and an understanding of the game that appeared to be far beyond their years.  None of the kids out there belonged to me – I was waiting for my daughter’s tournament final, which was to follow the display I was taking in.  As a result, I was surrounded by a combination of parents associated with the teams-in-waiting and one of the teams currently on the pitch.  The overheard conversations were interesting – almost all of them focused on the imagined forces that had led to such an amazingly successful youth soccer team:

“they must get great coaching”

“tremendous athletes”

“must have played together for a long time”

“intrinsically aggressive”

“parents probably push them hard”

All of these are certainly very likely to have played a role. But note that almost exclusively, the comments related to the influence of external forces (e.g. coaches, parents, teammate continuity), or innate, unconscious factors (e.g. athleticism, aggressiveness).  Nobody made any mention of the fact that the girls genuinely looked like they were hyper-focused on the job at hand…the players actually looked to be the driving forces in the whole equation.

Now, one can excuse the spectators for pointing to the parents – both sidelines were filled with dreadful individuals who were screaming at the refs and opposing players, while cheering with almost blind insanity at every small success on the pitch – the parents were clearly into the game.  However, I watched closely and didn’t see any evidence that the kids were paying any attention to the parents.  No cowed glances over to mom or dad when losing possession; no slumped shoulders at a shot blasted over the bar.  There was only dedication to winning the ball back after it had been lost, a commitment to playing a better pass the next time they were on the attack, sharper movement off the ball, and a focus on defending harder and smarter after getting beaten the last time.

How did they get that way?  Did the coach instill a love of the game?  Did the parents teach the kids to be self motivated and focused?  Maybe…but I am betting the kids were so good simply because they had a combination of athletic ability AND an intrinsic interest in being good soccer players.  The external stuff might make small differences, but these kids were good because these kids WANTED to be good.

As I have done before I will draw connections to academics.  Yes, a student can be a diligent and focused worker because of parental influence.  Yes, a difficult or typically bland subject can be brought alive by a talented teacher.  However, the most brilliant student successes arise from that combination of ability, work ethic, AND innate interest.  One can get ‘A’s in chemistry by working hard and being smart, but nobody ever became a brilliant chemist without that internal drive and interest to learn chemistry at the deepest levels.  I think we all see this in our jobs, as well.  Most people who are successful have a deep inner drive to understand their profession – out-working the other person is not good enough, nor is having a boss who drives you harder than everyone else.  It is generally difficult to be at the top of your profession without really wanting to be the best.

Returning to the soccer pitch, it might be helpful for the parents to re-think what causes some players to thrive, while other (maybe their own) very talented athletes lag behind, making the same mistakes game after game, and playing the same, unsophisticated brand of soccer year after year. Doesn’t it make sense that if the kids really wanted to learn the game at a deeper level that they would do so?  If they loved the game with a strong, visceral drive, wouldn’t they want to be better every day, instead of sleepwalking through practices and games while parents and coaches try to tell them how to fix things in real time?  I think so – you see this situation and come to understand it in the classroom and workplace, why do we expect different results in youth sports where the stakes are so much LOWER?  As I have said before, let the kid decide where he/she is going – it is your job to simply provide the opportunities for growth – the kids decide whether they want to grow in that direction or not.

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