Let me first define mental toughness in a player. This means having the ability to play through an opponent trying to hurt you or saying things to you to get under your skin. It means being able to play through discomfort and fatigue. Disregarding a bad call or a series of mistakes. Being able to use your body to protect yourself. Being able to hear the message and not the tone.
I notice that so many of my club players lack this necessary ingredient to be a top player. Regardless of the environment created at practice, some players shy away from confrontation. The have no desire to fight for what they want and they take the easy way out. If you look at the way these kids live, it is easy to understand why they behave the way they do. When they wake up in the morning, there are choices regarding what to eat for breakfast, what clothes to wear, what shoes to wear, whether to shower or take a bath. There is a bus that picks them up and drops them off. Some ride with their parents. They have everything they need or want available to them.
Do not take this the wrong way. There is nothing wrong with parents working hard to provide for their kids. Some parents do a great job with their children when it comes to balancing needs and wants, manners, accountability and work ethic. The problem is that most of these kids never have to deal with adversity. They are sheltered from life’s problems, as mom and dad intervene at the sight of any perceived obstacle. This makes it very difficult for a coach, because these players do not do well with criticism from the authority figure (the soccer coach) or their peers. These players do not deal well with pressure situations and find excuses instead of solutions. Some of my most talented players are afraid to play when the going gets tough. They fabricate an injury or asked to be substituted. I am amazed that these same players have no problems when we play against weaker teams.
I do have players that are tough and as time goes by and I get to know the parent/parents, I gain an appreciation for the life they live and how it affects their performance on the field. These players sometimes come from single parent homes, they help take care of a younger sibling, they help with the household chores, and some even work part-time to help with expenses. These kids bring a different level of maturity and problem solving ability.
I know a player, who lives on a farm. She has to milk cows at 5 am and at 5pm every day. She also has younger siblings that she helps. She is one of the toughest, most talented players I have seen in years. She happens to play for the United States U17 team and has a full scholarship to attend a top 10 NCAA team. I also know four other players, who played one semester in college and quit because they were not tough enough to deal with having to be at their best everyday without breaks. No easy games or practices.
Carlos Tevez, who plays for Argentina and Manchester City, was asked in an interview when he played for Manchester United if he felt pressure playing for one of the biggest clubs in the world. His answer was astonishing. He said that he only remembered feeling pressure when he played with men as a 13 year old boy. He had to win, so that he could help feed his family. Diego Maradona lived in a two bedroom home with 8 siblings, Lionel Messi had to overcome a growth abnormality to be able to play and at 5’4 is the best player in the world. I can go on and on, but I think I have made my point.
Toughness has to come from within. Something has to drive you past all obstacles. Your passion and will has to see your through the toughest moments. Many players have the talent, but only a few have the ability to use it when it really counts.