It was a true pleasure to watch the US Men’s National Team dismantle El Salvador last night in their match. Although the game was a friendly and El Salvador was not at full strength, this is the type of result that one would expect from a sport obsessed nation when competing against a country one fiftieth its size. As Iceland has proven beyond the shadow of a doubt, population is not truly relevant when judging a footballing nation. However the numbers simply provide a context for available talent pool. Even with the competition from the other major US sports, more people play soccer in the US than the entire population of El Salvador. Seeing a tangible result to all of the shifts in US soccer over the past decade was refreshing. Despite my joy in seeing the young squad of US player, it has made me think about the collateral damage of a system that needs to cast aside over 99% of individuals to find those special few.
The US soccer pyramid is not truly a pyramid as it has several dysfunctions and offshoots. However due to the lack of a better term, we’ll refer to it as a pyramid. The structure itself is not completely relevant to the discussion.
The collateral damage that I am referring to is not unique to the US, nor is it new. A youth player from the Manchester City academy committed suicide earlier this year. This is the most extreme example of the ways in which young players can be affected by their fall from the soccer pyramid. Every year young players and old are given their release from a club. Sometimes it is simply a move to a different club or different level. Unfortunately when the ultimate decision is made that a player is no longer “good enough” at their particular level of the soccer pyramid, the fall can be devastating if they are not prepared.
In the United States, the academy system is in its relative infancy compared to the rest of the world. The college system used to be the route to the professional game and with it came an education which served as a “back up plan.” Even with that “back up plan” in place, I’m not sure that it deals with the most pressing issue. A player who has devoted over a decade to the dream of “making it” in soccer (however they would define it) needs to have the psychological tools to deal with that disappointment. A parachute can be a literal lifesaver when falling from high heights but it needs to be strapped on tight before the fall.
The following items are some suggestions that can be packed into the psychological parachute for players in case they fall off the pyramid.
- A diversified identity – Although we are all only one person, we tend to have different roles that we play within our lives. A person with a singular focus like professional athletics can tend to have tunnel vision on that identity. Developing other aspects of one’s life can not only help in the case of a fall but also allow for the release of pressure during their career. Although this identity includes how the individual interacts with the outside world, it is also extremely important that he/she recognize these other identities inside of his/her own mind. The trauma of losing a part of one’s life is much worse if it is the only part that mattered. That void will need to be filled with something and the easiest things to fill a void with are usually destructive.
- Quality self-talk – There are many ways that this could be characterized but the heart of the issue is that there is only one person that we spend our entire life with: ourselves. Therefore it is extremely important that we make that person who is living inside of our own heads a friend. Learning how to communicate effectively with yourself is crucial to the building and maintenance of self-esteem. For some reason it seems to me that “esteem” gets overshadowed in that compound word. Esteem is a pretty lofty opinion of someone. It should be something that we can bestow onto ourselves with our words and actions.
- Quality relationships – Again this is something that needs to be packed in the parachute before the fall. People are less likely to help when they feel that they are being used. Friends and family are key components to our psychological well being. The bonds that we have with the people that we value in our lives releases oxytocin which lowers stress (cortisol) and inhibits addiction. If these types of relationships are not well in place before falling from the pyramid, the stress of “not knowing who to trust” can exacerbate an already difficult situation.
- Physiological hooks – The body is an amazing antidote to most things that ail the mind. While my hope would be that a player of high caliber would understand how to change her/his state for games or practices, it may be less evident to use these tools when “the walls have tumbled down.” Disappointment, embarrassment, depression and a host of other emotional states may be easier to fall into after the end of a career. Recognizing the control that each of us has over our emotional state through our posture, habitual movements, facial expressions and others is a skill that every individual should develop. This is not a sports skill. It’s a life skill! Creating our emotional state is our job because when it is left up to the world, we are bound to be disappointed by the outcome.
This list is far from exhaustive. However it does begin the conversation about the psychological tools that we all should develop. In this hyper-intense world of high level soccer, it is easy to be so focused on a singular outcome that these tools do not get developed. Unlike the college education which was viewed as a “back up plan,” psychological well being should be THE PLAN for all of us in order to make our journey through life an enjoyable one.
Go pack your chute!