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Advice Jan 21, 2014

Want them to play with urgency? Tell them the final whistle is about to sound

A goal down and five minutes on the clock. There’s nothing like the play of a team in the final minutes of the game. There’s focus, determination, energy, persistence. They throw caution to the wind and attack relentlessly. They’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain. Go for it!

Olympics Day 7 - Women's Football Q/F - Match 20 - USA v New ZealandWhen the final whistle is about to sound, everybody steps up their game. They discover a passion and push they didn’t know they had in them. Where has this been hiding? What if they could play with this intensity the whole game, the whole season, their whole careers, whole lives? How can we help our athletes do this?

Tell them the final whistle is about to sound.

Most young people don’t come with a natural sense of urgency. They’ll get to it when they get to it. Unless you put a deadline or a due date on it, they’re content to take their time. In their eyes, they have all the time in the world. Why rush?

This is frustrating for parents who pack a different perspective. We know that time marches on and what gets by will not circle back. If you’re not ready when it comes, it’s past before you know it. We also know that readiness takes time and practice. There’s no cramming for the Final IV. Even though it may work for your Spanish quiz, your history test or that forgotten English project, it doesn’t work on game day. Just telling this to a kid, though, gets you nowhere. For them, the final whistle is a long way off.

Laissez-faire kids are also frustrating for the coach, although this varies depending on what’s at stake:

  • The rec coach is not concerned with the final whistle. When it sounds, it’s snack time.
  • The volunteer youth coach turns up the volume for the second half but settles for the result at the final whistle. At season’s end, they’ll see which division they end up in.
  • The paid coach is keenly tuned in to the final whistle. The score when it blows may determine whether they have a job the next game or the next season.

Can a whistle really be this powerful? Only if it’s the “final” whistle. Both athletes and coaches discover the urgency when the last seconds tick down. Wouldn’t it be great if we could harness this mindset — this final-minute push — in the development of our young athletes? But how?

Paradoxically, the first thing to do is identify “our final whistle” mindset as parents and coaches. Parents, no matter how invested, cannot imbue their kids with an urgency that will last. Likely, the more we push, the more they pull back.

Coaches may have more success here, but they should proceed with caution. Presuming their game and their team is the pinnacle for their star player may get in the way of developing him or her for a team at the next level. That is, if a coach sees his championship game as the final whistle for his players, he’ll play them that way. Hey, it’s the last game for his seniors, why not pull out all the stops and throw caution to the wind? But if they play for other teams or are headed to showcase tournaments where college coaches will come to see them, perhaps risking everything in the high school season finale may not be what they need.

Perspective is key. And coaches need to keep perspective, because kids won’t. To them, it’s all good. They’re tireless, bulletproof and completely resilient. Coaches and parents know better. If we’re honest, we’ll honor this and develop them for the better thing on the horizon. Which may be high school, may be college, may be pro or may just be healthy knees that bend without pain when they kneel to speak to their own kids’ teams.

The problem is the just-take-your-time-and-get-to- it-when-you-get-to-it approach is not a great long term strategy. We’ve got to help them discover motivation to work hard even when the final whistle seems a long way off.

Coach Matthew Wolf (pictured at right), assistant men’s soccer coach at the University of Great Falls in Montana, has a strategy for this he calls athletic mortality. As a college coach, he gets the young players at their peak. They have accomplished much, and his job is to inspire them to grab all they can now. In the four years they have, to take it all in and make it pay off.

They, being young and fit and athletic and capable, can train hard and recover easily. They figure it will never be different. It will. Coach Wolf convinces them that now is your time; take advantage of every bit of it, because it won’t last.

There will be a final whistle. For some, it comes painfully early, as it did for Briana Scurry (pictured below), Alecko Eskandarian and Taylor Twellman, who suffered career-ending concussions.  But ask them and they’ll tell you they have no regrets. Because they trained and played every game to the final whistle.

That’s what we want for our kids. To be fit for the final whistle, whenever it comes: rec, travel, high school, college, pro, coaching, administrating, training, parenting. For everything, as they say, there is a season. We want them to get the most out of this one, even while keeping an eye on the next. Train like the final whistle it about to blow, so you can finish that way. Every game.

No, their job is not at stake; their legacy is not on the line. But everything is waiting for them, and it is a time-limited offer. The referee is holding the whistle to her mouth. Play.