The Key to Developing Mental Toughness & Competitiveness in Soccer Players

When I was a kid growing up in Chile, soccer balls were a scarce resource.

As such, if you were the one that happened to kick the ball over someone’s fence into their yard, you would have to pony up and go get it.

Problem was…

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Every single house had 2 things that made this endeavor very interesting.

First off, every single home had fences surrounding the house and these big fences almost always had really sharp spikes in them.  It sucked…  I guess they wanted to stop all the thieves (and ball chasers like ourselves).

And secondly, these homes often had nasty guard dogs.

However, at such a tender age, the pressure of your buddies – who’s game you’re ruining due to losing the ball – is enough to make you venture nasty spikes and guard dogs.

And so, on a random warm summer day, I found myself stressed after I had over-zealously kicked a ball into the house with the nastiest guard dog around.

This house actually had 2 guard dogs…

And so with sweat starting to run down my face due to nervousness, I pondered my options:

Option A. Refuse to go get the ball and incur the wrath of my friends, while also ruining a perfectly good street soccer game.

Or option B. Take the risk of getting mauled by a guard dog while trying to save the ball but at the very least keeping the entire soccer gang happy.

Aaaaand of course I opted with the less risky option B.

No brainer right?

Anyhoo, after about 30 minutes of plotting as to how the heck I was going to get over the fence, get the ball and get out there before being attacked we came up with a “solid” plan.

My buddies were to distract the dogs on the far side of the fence while I had to quickly hop over and get the ball out before the dogs noticed.  After about 5 minutes where the boys kept on trying to distract the dogs, I finally got the “thumbs up” from them letting me know I was good to go.  And so with Butterflies in my stomach, and scared to death, I hopped over the spiked fence, ran to the ball, threw the ball back over the fence and starting running to hop back to safety.  Just as I was bolting to hop back over the fence into freedom, the dogs noticed how they had been duped.  Angered, they rushed at me ready to avenge their pride in giving up the sacred yard space they were protecting.  But little did those dogs know that when scared, adrenaline makes you move faster than Usain Bolt, (or at least makes you think so).  I hopped that fence in Olympic record time just as the dogs were within a couple of feet of biting my ankles off.

And thus, fortunately our majestic game of Street Soccer got to be continued for another day… and I kept my pride and did not become enemy #1 among our group of soccer players.

And so, you’re thinking how the heck does mental toughness, self-proficiency and competitiveness apply to this?  

It’s this; to develop smart, self-sufficient players (and people overall), you have to let them figure out stuff for themselves.

You see, in the (admittedly bizarre) example above, if parents had been around we wouldn’t have figured out a solution.

Instead we would have relied on the parents.

I mean, just look at how Finland is leading the world in their schooling system.

Half of what they do is letting kids experience and learn on their own without constant interference from teachers and parents.

And when your kid ONLY gets training at the club where the coach is telling them what to do every step, they become reliant on waiting for instructions. In fact, often in my sessions I’ll do mini games where kids are simply playing 1v1 competitions.  Of course arguments arise in these highly competitive games and what do they do?  They come ask me to figure out their argument.  “Coach, we’re tied 1-1, what do we do?” Or,  “He says the ball went it, but it really hit the post what do we do?” Or, “he’s grabbing my shirt…”

And what do I do?

I say:

“Figure it out yourselves..”

You see, this isn’t only about being self proficient and developing game intelligence and learning to figure things out on your own.

This is also about developing a competitive spirit – something insanely important in sports.

You see in the scenario I mentioned above where I set up mini games, if you can’t argue for yourself and fight for yourself, then you’ll lose practically every game.  Continuing on that, if you have a coach or parent figuring the rules for you and holding you by the hand all the time, how the heck can you learn to be competitive and mentally tough?

You don’t have to be cause mommy and daddy are always there for you!

I once saw a 10 year old get hit in the face with a ball.  And here’s the thing, the hit wasn’t even hard.

But immediately Mommy ran onto the field to “save” little Johnny.

Seriously?

Of course a kid will react easier and cry easier if he knows Mommy is there for him.  It’s the classic “letting the baby cry or not” argument.

Ever notice how first time parents freak out about anything over their kid?  And then you see third time parents and it’s like: “oh you’re about to fall out of the tree? Ok, figure it out I’m busy…”

See the difference?

Those latter kids are usually tougher.

And a big part is due to how their parents refused to do everything for them.

Keep that in mind when it comes to good soccer development.  There’s more to soccer than just developing skills in practice and giving them more club training.  There’s the self-sufficiency side, the game intelligence side, and of course the competitiveness and mental toughness side of things.  And you can’t just develop those things by doing typical club training.

You can have all the ball skills in the world, but if you don’t have those other intangibles the skills won’t matter much my amigo…

I’m curious though, have you seen this play out in your experience?

OR, do you have a soccer development question about your kid or yourself?  Ask me below…

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