Setting Young Athletes up for Success in Sport and in Life

Discipline is the refining fire by which talent becomes ability.
— Roy Smith

There's no secret to how the most successful athletes get to where they are. They work hard. As Roy Smith's quote above states, discipline is what turns talent into ability. Yes, talent, opportunity, perhaps luck, all help on their journey to success, but in the end, athletes who make it to the elite level have all done the hard work required.

I've recently been doing work at a few London based soccer academies - programs that work with 16 to 18-year-old aspiring soccer players looking to make it as a professional. These places are full of talented young athletes. However, the one thing I keep hearing from the coaches and program directors is, "these boys need to learn about what real professionalism looks like if they're ever going to make it to league level."

Of course, these academies work their athletes hard while they're there. Training can be long and grueling, they are continually doing footwork and ball handling drills, tough running sessions, and everything else you can imagine a soccer program to do. However, the issue doesn't lie with what these young athletes do while they're at the academy, those in charge realize that they need to be doing more when they're on their own time.

Being a professional athlete isn't a job, it's a lifestyle. This was one of the first lessons I learned after I got drafted to the AFL as a naive 17-year-old. It was a crucial lesson for me because up until that point I had mostly relied on natural ability to compete with my younger peers, a strategy that I quickly learned wasn't going to cut it at the top level. As it was explained to me by a senior player at the Tigers, 'everything you do, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, impacts your ability to perform as a footballer'.

It took me a while but, I had to learn that how much sleep I got impacted my ability to focus and concentrate. The food I ate dictated how much energy I had. How long I sat in a chair or if I slept on my stomach resulted in my bad back flaring up. And what I did on my days off and during my off-season made a big difference to how competitive I was on game days. 24 hours a day, seven days a week - it is a lifestyle, not a job.

So back to aspiring young athletes. The skills, drills, methodologies, and principles of professional and elite sport have trickled down to youth sports. Young athletes are trained mostly in the same ways as their adult counterparts (for better and sometimes for worse - but that’s an argument for another time!). They understand the importance of learning and adopting the right techniques as well as the required level of fitness and speed to compete at the top level. The most highly motivated ones even eat the same kinds of diets as the pros.

But, ‘professionalism’ isn’t necessarily specific things like skills, fitness, and diet. It also includes ‘soft skills’ that aren’t always solely sports relevant. Setting goals and targets, managing time, prioritizing tasks and energy, maintaining accountability, just as examples. These are all things that fall under the bracket of professionalism and are also the things that the people I’ve been talking to at these soccer academies are saying their players are not doing well…

You may be reading this and thinking, ‘well my athletes or kids are great at all these things – they tick all the boxes when it comes to training and competing.’ And maybe that is the case, but are they doing it themselves, or are you ‘holding their hand’ through everything they have to do? Are they taking ownership of their actions? Do they understand ‘why’ they are doing certain things?

It’s common to hear people speak about the younger generations now not being as resilient as they used to be. From all the work I do at schools, universities and in sporting academies, I’d say there’s certainly an element of truth to that. It is great to see organizations trying to be proactive finding solutions to help address the growing issues young people and athletes are facing regarding mental health and wellness. To that end, it seems it would be a good idea to look at why young people these days aren’t as resilient as previous generations.

As I’ve written about previously, ‘resilience is the ability to persist through adversity.’ In most cases, that ability to persist comes from the belief that one can overcome whatever the challenge they are facing, and this belief is often a result of having overcome similar situations in the past. Hence the argument is made, that by continually protecting kids from failure we are setting them up for failure later in life because they won’t become confident in their ability to bounce back.

Developing professionalism is arguably the same. If we do everything for young athletes, for example: plan their schedules, pack their bags, make decisions for them, make EXCUSES for them… then we are only ‘short-changing’ them for later in life when they need to be able to look after themselves.

We need to do as much as we can to develop technical skills and understanding as well as fitness and strength – young athletes will always benefit from excellent instruction. However, instead of making them more professional, instead teach them ‘how’ to be more professional. Teach and educate around what it takes to be professional, guide them on how to do it and then empower them to do it themselves. ‘Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.’

Let’s set our young athletes up for success both in life and in sport by not forgetting the soft skills of professionalism, and by imparting them not dictating them.

Game Change was founded in 2011 to serve and enhance the athlete development needs of major professional and elite sport organizations and athletes.  Game Change specializes in customized research and assessment services, the development of applied interventions and resources designed to provide long-term positive outcomes for organizations and individual athletes.  Game Change believes strongly in sport as a catalyst for societal change and adheres to the philosophy of ‘changing the world one athlete at a time’.