By Bill Altieri

I think a lot about soccer… about teams and players both past and present, amazing moments — all sorts of things. I am also constantly revisiting my current world’s best 11 players by position — this is my starting lineup, including coach/manager, if I could handpick anyone in the world to play on my team (in other words, my fantasy team). I actually took it (way) too far last year when I had t-shirts made of my selections laid out in their rightful positions on the outline of a soccer field — embarrassingly geeky — but it was driven by a series of very heated discussions about this topic with one of our DFC coaches (who shall remain nameless in order to protect the guilty). Strange as it was, it gave me a tremendous amount of pleasure to be able to have such a passionate discussion with a friend and fellow coach at the club. It’s one of the many reasons I love our program so much — we really do have an incredible staff.

One of the other things I often think about when my mind wanders to soccer is the process of how to create the perfect soccer player. No, not in a Frankenstein sort of way, but rather from the perspective of examining the vast multitude of factors that combine to contribute to a player’s ultimate success at the highest levels – the ideal combination of training and playing experiences, etc. I know a number of parents in the club have had the misfortune of suffering through my attempts to explain my player development theories in great detail. I offer my belated apologies to all off you.

At the heart of the issue is the whole concept of Nature v Nurture. I believe without question it is a bit of both. For coaches and parents, there’s so much that we cannot control in the development of an athlete. For example, we cannot control genetics and natural gifts, nor can we control desire and internal motivation. Let’s set those things aside for now, as I’m a believer in focusing my energies on those elements that I can either influence or outright control. One of the obvious things that we can shape is the training environment our young soccer players are exposed to. Things like quality of coaching, curriculum, training schedule, level of competition, intensity, culture and enjoyment. It is actually impossible to know if a young player actually possesses the genetic makeup or natural gifts needed to be a truly elite player until long after they’ve been exposed to an optimal training environment over a very long period of time. As coaches, our job is to pour our hearts and souls into each and every child that laces up a pair of cleats and pulls on our club’s jersey. As they say, most of the fun in running the race is seeing how far and how fast you can actually go. This is yet another reason why I love what we do here.

Getting back to the subject of developing the perfect soccer player, I actually think a much better way to look at the problem is to ask ourselves how we help each player to reach his or her full soccer potential. The truth is that I have no idea if we will ever have the opportunity to train a child with truly elite, world-class soccer potential. The odds are obviously stacked against us, but we plan to be ready if given the chance. In the meantime, we will approach each and every player we coach like they have all the potential in the world, and in our eyes they do. Anyway, I read an interesting article (that was NOT about soccer) somewhere recently that stated: athletic performance equals potential minus interference. The article then went on to explain that athletic potential is a combination of intrinsic or inherent factors present naturally in an athlete as well as external or environmental factors that help shape an athlete over time, and that interference was the athlete’s state of mind, which could be improved or diminished by a variety of external factors. If you read carefully between the lines, coaches and parents appear on both sides of this equation — we can help positively shape an athlete to increase their potential and we can also get in the way of their ability to perform by creating interference. Many of us unwittingly do both, I’m sure. No matter how talented, each player faces a huge number of ups and downs throughout their playing career and we need to help our players to develop the mental capacity to effectively cope with these moments — to remain mentally strong, focused and committed. In other words, to help them create that self-belief and steely determination that helps define a successful athlete.

This brings us to the real point of this post and it isn’t about building the perfect soccer player. It’s actually about building the perfect soccer player development environment. As we said before, we cannot change genetics or talent and we can’t manufacture vast quantities of internal motivation. But as a soccer club, there is still a lot we can do to help our players to succeed:
We must do the following soccer-related things:

  • Help our players to find enjoyment in the game of soccer — when they love the game they will keep coming back to play despite the many ups and downs
  • Instill a thoughtful, player-centered philosophy that guides our club’s player development efforts
  • Provide a modern, age-appropriate curriculum that provides for the development of technical abilities as well as sound decision-making
  • Hire great coaches that buy into our club’s philosophy, curriculum, and coaching guidelines
  • Create a fun, exciting, inspiring learning environment for our young soccer players
  • Encourage our young players to watch professional soccer live and on tv, and to identify teams and players to support
  • Encourage our players to train intensely and to polish their skills outside of team or club scheduled events, and to set goals for their own development
  • Provide a pathway for players to see their soccer futures and reach the goals they set for themselves

We must also do these other important things:

  • Encourage parents to show interest in their child’s soccer activities, which is highly motivating
  • Educate parents about the game of soccer and broad player development principles
  • Remind parents that the goals and dreams must belong to the player or they will never come true
  • Encourage parents to hold children accountable to their soccer commitments, goals and dreams — help them to overcome difficult moments that could potentially derail their development

Player development is both an art and a science — a partnership between the player, the coach, and the parents. As with every successful partnership, each partner must perform its role to the fullest. For DFC, the bottom line is that we need to do our part by continuing to develop a culture that breeds success and helps the child to reach their full soccer potential. I think we are on the right track, but there is always more work to be done.