More important than talent? The willingness to suffer

JohnOSullivan-HeaderParents ask me all the time if I think their child has what it takes to play at the college or professional level. They are asking if I think their kid has enough talent. My reply:

“How much are your kids willing to suffer?”

The answer to that simple question will go a long way in determining whether any athlete will reach his potential, and perhaps play at an elite level.  Sorry to burst many bubbles, but if athletes are not willing to suffer, chances are slim that they will make it.

Now I know that genetics, deliberate training, coaching and a whole slew of things go into the development of athletes. To place all your emphasis on any one factor is ill-advised, and very narrow-minded. Some people do this with the so-called “10,000-hour rule” of deliberate practice, while others believe that you either have talent or you do not.

I am in the business of training elite soccer players. I have been doing this for nearly 20 years. I have learned that no one factor takes an athlete to the next level. A combination of factors do, and for me,  an athlete’s willingness to suffer, his or her comfort with being uncomfortable, is often a strong determinant upon whether they reach their potential, or instead become another one of those “shoulda, coulda, woulda” players.

The current mythology of overnight success, where we are lead to believe every success story was born with the talent, has blinded us to the fact that the elite athletes we see on television have all suffered. They have practiced and toiled for long hours, day after day, when no one was watching. Time and again, when they wanted to quit, they did one more repetition, ran one more lap, and trained a few minutes longer.

They gave up time with friends and family to pursue their craft. They make it look easy because of the thousands of hours that they made it hard on themselves. They willingly made themselves uncomfortable! They suffered because they knew that they had to in order to succeed.

Most of the athletes I work with will not ever achieve their true potential, because the thought of suffering and discomfort frightens them. Some just do not like being out of their comfort zone. Others have a fixed mindset, and are afraid that if the give their best and come up short they are some kind of failure (which of course they are not), so they never try.

Far too many have been coddled by their parents and protected from failure. Others have had coaches who let them give less than their best because they were a 12-year-old star. When a coach got tough, these players were used to backing off. When they encountered adversity, their parents stepped in and intervened, instead of using it as a teachable moment. When given the choice of whether to embrace suffering, or pull back, these athletes often chose the easy path. That is why they will not make it.

Anson Dorrance is the coach of the 22-time NCAA national champion University of North Carolina women’s soccer team. He once encountered Mia Hamm, the reigning college player of the year, and already one of the top players in the world, training by herself early one morning on a hot, humid summer day. As he watched, she pushed herself through sprint after sprint, falling to the ground and gasping for breath after each. He wrote the following message to her:

“The true vision of a champion is someone bent over, drenched in sweat, at the point of exhaustion, when no one else is watching.”

Mia Hamm went on to become the best player in the world, not only because she had talent and great coaching, but because she was willing to suffer more than her competitors.

Are you instilling a willingness to suffer in your athletes? In your kids? Are you challenging them, making them uncomfortable, pushing them hard, and then pushing a little harder?

Are your kids willing to suffer?

If they are not, they can still do a lot of things in life, but becoming an elite athlete is probably not one of them.

Help them build the will to suffer, to endure in the face of great obstacles, and the ability to cherish the opportunity to struggle, and chances are far greater that they will reach their potential in whatever field they choose!

Suffering is the elite athlete’s best friend!


John O'Sullivan - Changing The Game Bio


Editor’s note: would like to welcome our newest contributor, bestselling author John O’Sullivan. John is the founder of the Changing the Game Project, and the author of the bestselling book “Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High-Performing Athletes” and “Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids.”
John brings nearly three decades of experience to SoccerWire, first as a collegiate and professional player, and most recently as a coach at the youth, high school and collegiate levels. He has served as a director of coaching for clubs in Vermont, Michigan and Oregon, and most recently was a Regional Training Center Director for the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer. He holds a USSF A License, a US Youth Soccer National License and an Advanced National Diploma from the NSCAA.
Currently John is a full-time author and speaker, and travels throughout the United States speaking to youth sports organizations and schools about changing the current youth sports structure, and teaching them how to develop athletic excellence and leadership through positive sporting environments. His goal is to educate parents and coaches about how to overcome many of the factors that are causing 70 percent of our athletes to quit sports by age 13.

He teaches how to raise high-performing athletes by understanding why kids play sports, why they quit, and how to change the culture of a club or community to allow more young athletes to grow and develop. You can learn more at John’s blog,
John is a graduate of Fordham University, and received his MA from the University of Vermont. He resides in Bend, Oregon with his wife, Dr. Lauren O’Sullivan, and his two children, 8-year-old Maggie and 6-year-old Tiernan.


By | November 14, 2013 | 6 Comments | Tags: , ,


  1. Wendy LeBolt says:

    Hey John (and soccermom#6),

    Interestingly enough, our word “passion” comes from the Latin verb pati, which means to suffer. You have said, how much are they willing to suffer? We sometimes ask, do they have passion for the game? They may have incredible passion – really, really desire to be great. And for this they will sacrifice a lot. Perhaps suffer. But we would do well to remember that sometimes hard work, even suffering, does not succeed in achieving our desired results. As hard as they work, other kids may be more talented, more able, more athletic. Frankly, they’re just better. So they get more playing time. And they progress faster, even with perhaps less or equal “work” or suffering. Because winning is the team objective and coaches of competitive teams make their decisions based on the win/loss framework. Here’s where coach a team and developing a player can come into conflict. I found this a very, very hard place as a coach. I suffered here.

    I believe we become disillusioned, or perhaps misguided (inadvertently) by successful people who have strived greatly — and won. The Mia Hamms and the Michael Phelps, who have suffered and succeeded. No amount of hard work will make me play soccer like Mia or swim like Michael. But they are who we hold high as standards. “If you work hard enough and believe in yourself you can reach this high” — probably false. We need to take a hard look at our expectations, and balance reality and “the dream.”

    We must realize this with our children. As parents, our objective is to help them grow into the best kids they can be. This may or may not include elite soccer. We need to be honest with ourselves and with them. If they’ve come as far as they’re going to, having put in dedicated effort, then settling for the B team, plus scouts, band, art class or community service may be the healthiest advice we can give them.

    I look forward to reading more from you, John. Welcome aboard.

    • soccermom#6 says:

      Wendy, I always enjoy your perspectives. I think the theme here is “hard work trumps talent”. If I am a coach (am not), I will always pick a player who is less talented but willing to work hard than a player who has the talent but not willing to work hard. In my son’s case, a ton of talent and passion for the game but come game time he won’t put in the effort. If someone passes him the ball he does all kinds of magic but never works hard to get/win the ball. That is frustrating. I agree with your arguments in a different sense. Given all talent and all hard work, in the end luck has to be on your side as well…case in point injuries. Stuart Holden comes to mind. In the end, you are as good as your body. Taking care of it for good health life long should be the goal.

    • Michael says:

      Dr. LeBolt and Mr. O’Sullivan – I have enjoyed your articles.

      There is certainly a cottage industry around convincing parents and players that with just a little more [something] (at just a little more cost), your child can be elite. I have found this to be especially apparently from about U11-U13 but I’m sure it can start before that and continue well after that.

      I am not a scientist/doctor/etc. but I think there is a mix of attributes that go into an elite or even semi-elite athlete. There could probably be a study done on the percentages of each and what attributes could compensate for shortcomings in other areas:

      Physical attributes (size, speed, strength)
      Athletic ability
      “Talent” (i.e., coordination)
      Willingness to suffer and endure
      Physical health/lack of injuries
      Mental health (ability to win and lose)
      Family’s willingness to suffer
      Love of the game
      Understanding of the game (Soccer IQ)
      Opportunity (what teams/coaches are within a reasonable distance)
      Money (unfortunately, in this area, this plays a big part)

      If we had a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the highest, I think a baseline of 5 for EACH is necessary. After that, 8-10 in the majority of categories for elite.

      Please discuss!

      • Thanks everyone. To deduce everything into a sentence, to steal the oft used quote, “Hard work trumps talent when talent does not work hard.” No one thing ever determines elite performance (talent, deliberate practice, coaching, motivation, luck, etc) and only a combination of factors leads an athlete to the next level. I agree strongly with Wendy that different athletes face different limitations, some physical, others financial, that might hold them back. No amount of any one thing will set an athlete apart, only the combination. I realize this is my first blog here so hopefully as I continue to contribute you will see a more clear perspective of mine. Feel free to check out my website as well if you cannot wait! New article coming soon, thanks for your comments!

  2. Soccermom#6 that is a great question, one I get quite often. Usually when kids don’t try its becasue they either do not love their sport (which does not sound like your son) or they have what Standford psychologist Dr Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset when it comes to sports. He sees his ability as fixed, he is either good or he is not good. This is usually instilled in kids that are praised for their ability rather than their effort. You either got it or you don’t, and if you got it, you don’t have to try. If this sounds like it might be the issue, here is a link to an article I wrote about this. I also recommend Dr Dweck’s book Mindset, which is a great read for any parent or coach. Good luck, here is the link:

  3. soccermom#6 says:

    This topic is very dear to me. I go through this every day with my son. I know what hard work is but I don’t think he knows what it is. He is very very crafty and superbly talented but ends up riding the bench because he is not willing to work hard. I read a lot (did read the book, the vision of a champion) and try to lecture him but I think that should come from within. He goes through highs and lows when it comes to effort and that just doesn’t cut through. He is always with the soccer ball in the basement but on the field he is just into the game. What advise do you have for this kid? How to motivate him?

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