Allow a snapshot of the greatest sprinters of all time to rest on your mind. From the iron willed Harold Abrahams, 1924 Gold medal winner who was immortalised in the film Chariots of Fire, to the grace of Jesse Owens, the man who won against the odds at the Berlin Olympics of 1936. From the defiant Jim Hines in 1968, to the all-round four Gold Medal winning superstar Carl Lewis, to the untouchable Usain Bolt.
A mental picture of sprinters serves the mind with a sporting cocktail of raw power, lightness of feet, strength of torso – a combination of relaxation and tension with physical prowess in abundance. Comparing the sport of sprinting with soccer enables us to get to the heart of why football coaches should be looking at mindset talent as a mediator of achievement within football (as well as why they should be optimistic about developing very good players and perhaps several professionals along the way.)
Sports like sprinting are closed skill and to a large degree simplistic. Yes this discipline requires sound running technique but from a genetic perspective it requires a lot of fast twitch muscle fibres and that’s about it. Football offers a more complex landscape. A soccer player can ease his way into a team with less physicality if he has great feet and learns to think quickly (think Xavi Hernandes and Lionel Messi).
Similarly, a soccer player can earn a living from playing his favourite sport if he lacks the ball skills of a Brazilian playmaker but enjoys the gift of height and muscular strength that are synonymous with playing as a centre back. Swift one-twos between his team mates may not be his forte, but consistently winning headers in dangerous positions might be. The exciting thing about football (and maybe this is why it is the world’s most popular sport) is that, when you really think about it, physical factors rarely rule you in, or rule you out, of how far you can go.
Of course there will always be kids who struggle to acclimatise to the nature of soccer – I’m not saying everyone is born to play like Falcoa, Iniesta or Hugo Llorente. But the nature and complexity of soccer means that we shouldn’t over-value the influence of physical talent on success. How good a player becomes is largely down to their will and their skill – and as a coach you have a strong influence on both.