Christian Lavers On The Importance of a Strong Soccer Club Culture and Making Player Development Work
Christian Lavers – a man who is known for changes in the landscape of youth soccer in America, is a columnist. President of the ECNL, Lavers was one of the key coaches in founding this elite player league for girls. Lavers, a charming, well-spoken man, is also a respected journalist and we are thrilled to welcome his insights on soccer.
One of the most important influences on player development (and eventually performance) is the culture within the player’s club. Culture is incredibly powerful at encouraging or stifling a variety of behaviors and mentalities that help determine long-term success of individual players.
So how do you create a culture that helps develop mentally tough and resilient players, and that promotes long term individual and team success?
The starting point in answering this question is defining exactly what culture is: the actions, attitudes and behaviors that characterize a particular group or organization. In other words, within any group culture defines what is acceptable and not, how people interact, what is valued and not, and how people behave in various situations. And while almost anyone can describe the actions, attitudes and behaviors that they desire to see in the players in their club, creating a culture where this mentality is embraced and felt every day is a much more difficult and long-term process.
Club culture begins with the philosophies, actions, and communication of the leaders – their ability and determination to set specific standards and expectations for every player in the club. But this is only the very beginning.
These desired behaviors must be accepted and internalized by the players, and begin to define their individual mindsets and mentalities – and this takes time.
Once players have embraced these expectations, then the desired actions, attitudes and behaviors will start to be seen in personal interactions between the players, and eventually enforced by the players with each other. When that occurs, what started as a philosophy and a desire has become truly cultural.
Creating a Culture of Mental Toughness
A key factor in determining the trajectory of a youth player’s career is their mental toughness – their determination, resilience and grit in difficult circumstances. This personal quality can not only be taught, but it can be taught, valued and encouraged in such a way that it becomes cultural and players within a group expect, teach and encourage it from each other.
A recent Forbes article took an interesting look at mental toughness, not by examining what mental toughness is, but by looking at what mental toughness is NOT. The article identified 13 behaviors and mindsets that mentally strong people avoid, a few of which strongly resonate in athletics. According to the article, mentally strong people do NOT:
1) Waste Time Feeling Sorry For Themselves. “You don’t see mentally strong people feeling sorry for their circumstances or dwelling on the way they’ve been mistreated. They have learned to take responsibility for their actions and outcomes, and have an inherent understanding of the fact that frequently life is not fair.”
2) Waste Energy on Things They Can’t Control. “In a bad situation, they recognize that the one thing they can always control is their own response and attitude.”
3) Make the Same Mistakes Over and Over. “A mentally strong person accepts full responsibility for past behavior and is willing to learn from mistakes.”
4) Feel the World Owes Them Anything. “Mentally strong people enter the world prepared to work and succeed on their merits, at every stage of the game.”
5) Expect Immediate Results. “Mentally strong people … know better than to expect immediate results … [a]nd they understand that genuine change takes time.”
Identifying behaviors that are not valued and desired is one way of setting standards and expectations. (Bear in mind that it is just as important to identify behaviors that are valued and desired.)
When one type of behavior is consistently rewarded and its opposite discouraged, and one type of behavior is clearly valued while its opposite is criticized, over time individual mindsets and behavior are impacted. Eventually, due to consistent reinforcement, discouragement, and communication, behaviors will be internalized, be enforced by the players themselves, and become part of the culture. Once they become cultural, older players teach younger players, veterans teach new players, violations of expectations are addressed internally, and the behavior becomes almost institutionalized.
While culture begins in individual mindsets, it is ultimately reflected in the way individuals within the organization interact with each other. According to a recent UK article the New Zealand All Blacks Rugby Program, now one of the most successful athletic teams in any sport in the world, identified an internal cultural problem in 2003. In response, the club created a new mantra of “Better People Make Better All Blacks,” which summarized a cultural make-over within the organization. It is not hard to see how some of the cultural norms they established positively impacted the interactions in the group, and ultimately performance:
1) Humility Is Reflected By Actions. Personal humility is a common quality of great athletes. The best players on the All Blacks, many among the best rugby players in the world, are often found doing basic and menial tasks like cleaning their own locker room.
2) Character Counts. The All Blacks roster is as notable for who is not on it, as much as for who is on it. Some of New Zealand’s top players are not on the roster because it is believed they would disrupt the family atmosphere.
3) Champions Do Extra. There is nothing surprising in this statement; top players and teams expect to do more work in many different ways than their opposition, and expect continual, daily improvement. (Daniel Coyle relates a great story of how a young Robin Van Persie of Holland and Arsenal Football Club learned to train significantly harder and with more focus by watching Dennis Bergkamp train one day.)
4) Calmness and Composure Wins. The All Blacks have identified desirable and undesirable mental states with colors. Red is “off task, panicked and ineffective,” while blue is “an optimal state in which you are on task and performing to the best of your ability.” Finding triggers to stay “blue” is a key to success in stressful, competitive moments. As any athlete recognizes, composure (and panic) is contagious in a group.
5) Leave the Jersey In a Better Place. Understanding the history they represent, and the legacy they will leave for the next generation, creates a higher sense of purpose. A higher purpose can have incredible benefits in surviving difficult moments, overcoming adversity, and incentivizing good behavior.