The mark of a champion

Credit: Shaun Botterill/Allsport
When you first felt the fever, the real lust for soccer, did you just want to play, or did you dream of playing in some big championship like the Olympics or the World Cup?

Ever wondered just what it takes to be a truly exceptional athlete? Genetics gets credit for everything these days, so why not athletic prowess?

Maybe in basketball where height is an advantage and you cant train height. Maybe the extreme size of a football player has a genetic link, but they also do a lot of weight training to increase muscle mass.

But what about soccer the most popular game in the world, the sport of the masses, a game that requires no particular genetic gifts to be successful?

You might look twice at someone 7 tall or 300 lbs of chiseled muscle, but most of the soccer elite wouldnt turn your head if you saw them in the mall. Pele? All of 59. USAs Landon Donovan looks more like your little brother. But there is something different about them that led to their success in the game.

Anson Dorrance, the incredibly successful womens coach for the University of North Carolina, frequently points out that he knew Mia Hamm was a great player. But he didnt realize her commitment until he drove by the field in February and saw her, bent over from exhaustion because she had been training alone.

I watched the 1996 womens Olympic team doing a killer training exercise, the kind that has you wishing you were dead. Tony DiCicco was urging them on with, Come on, faster, this is why we are the best in the world.

Lauren Gregg, Tonys longtime assistant, was coaching the U-20 womens team when they were being tested for their fitness tests of physical as well as mental commitment that demand work beyond the pain of fatigue. All the while she was driving them, saying Come on, its what we do when no one is watching that makes us champions.

You may think these are just old coaching slogans designed to motivate players. But what these coaches know is that there is only so much that a coach can do the player who wants to be exceptional has a responsibility to themselves, when no one is watching, when the pain of fatigue and the boredom of repetition are screaming for a break.

There is research to back up what the coach knows from experience. Psychologists have studied the best of the best; musicians, artists, typists, athletes, chess players, dancers, mathematicians and more, and have found one common trait among all practice.

Commit to practice and performance will follow.

But how much practice? The research shows that the truly elite performers have put in around 10 years and 10,000 hours of practice in their quest to achieve excellence.

But it is not just the years and hours, the elite usually began their journey very young. If you start later, like in high school or college, even with the time and years, the performance will never equal those who began young.

Now 10 years and 10,000 hours may sound like an impossible goal. And if you do the math, it is challenging.

Ten years and 10,000 hours averages out to 1000 hours a year. Divide that by 50 weeks and you get 20 hours a week, or 3-4 hours a day.

Not a full-time, 40-hour a week job and obviously not time a 12-year old can give. The professionals spend many hours a day, on the field and off, in preparation, so it adds up.

As kids, Pele, Ronaldo, Zidane and the other greats used to play for hours in the streets and parks and that obviously counted.

How do you watch a game tape? For the goals and the big hits, or to study the tactics and unique skills going on all over the field?

Dont get me wrong, there is more to life than a game. Even Hamm will tell young girls to play different sports and not focus on one sport too early.

I remember reading of a college player, in the midst of a free education, complaining that a European team (composed of basically high school dropouts) had given his team a severe lesson.

The point is that the current organization of soccer in clubs and schools can limit a players development if the only exposure to the game is through organized practice. A club team may train twice a week for 90 minutes a day and a game or two on the weekend for 6-8 hours a week.

Schools cram many games and practices into a short season. To improve, whether it is to be a better player or to be one of those truly exceptional players, you will have to put in the time time alone, time when no one is watching, time away from your team when the only person driving you is you.

If you want to be a better player, you are the critical element thats the mark of a champion.

Dr. Don Kirkendall is one of the foremost soccer doctors in the country. He is a professor at the University of North Carolina and works extensively with its women's soccer program. He is a member of the US Soccer Federation sports medicine committee and is currently working with the WUSA, the new women's pro league.

Discuss This Article