More important than talent? The willingness to suffer
“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.”
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!
Editor’s note: SoccerWire.com 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, www.changingthegameproject.com .
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.