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    The pursuit of perfection: How do you teach professionalism to players?

    Łukasz Rutkowski

    Mental Coach

    Perfection doesn’t exist in football because it’s a game of errors. Mistakes are made by everyone, starting from coaches, through players, and ending with referees and VAR. And yet the best players stand out from the crowd due to their pursuit of perfection. They try to fly higher and higher, challenging their own limits, but they don’t avoid mistakes.

    And it doesn’t apply to football alone. Let’s give voice to Michael Jordan, who is recognized by many as the best basketball player of all time:

    “I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” 

    And now let’s go back to the times when professional sport didn’t exist and listen to Saint  Augustine of Hippo: “As long as you are fighting, you are winning.” 

    These two quotes, so distant in time, perfectly demonstrate what the pursuit of perfection is. It’s all about becoming a professional and being impervious to failure. 

    DOES EVERYONE MAKE MISTAKES?

    What’s extremely important in shaping professionalism in a player is of course the role of his coach. We are the ones who should set an example of a professional attitude towards our duties and the first thing every athlete should be taught is that nobody is perfect. What this lesson entails is the permission to make mistakes. 

    Regardless of age, league or the level of professionalism, in my job I meet players who are under extreme pressure because they misunderstand the notion of “perfection”. It’s often mistakenly associated with not making mistakes. A person with such an approach often falls into a trap when their expectations are brutally confronted with the reality. The player falls into a pitfall, becomes frustrated and starts throwing tantrums. In the beginning, he’s mad at himself, and then also at other players, the coach and less important things: the weather, the condition of the turf, boots, football fans, etc. The list of excuses is growing and becomes more and more absurd. A big threat is psychosomatic pain, that is pain which has no physiological explanation.

    What can we do in a situation like that? First of all, it’s necessary to devote some time to a one-on-one conversation and ask the player a few simple questions:

    • Do you see yourself as a perfectionist and a professional? 
    • What do perfection and professionalism mean to you? 
    • Who was your role model and did that person make mistakes?

    By asking these questions, we should get a general view of the situation. Such a conversation alone may also help the player open up and lift the burden which he unnecessarily carried. However, it’s very important to calmly listen to his answers and never judge him. At this stage, the most important thing is to enter into dialogue and help the player open up, while outright judgement may have the opposite effect.  

    However, it’s also possible that a conversation will only be helpful in the short run. It’s not enough for the player to understand what a healthy pursuit of perfection is. He must also be willing to follow the path of self-improvement. That’s why it’s worth assigning to him specific tasks and clearly stating your expectations. Perfectionists need it so that they can focus on something. When there is some negative behaviour, don’t be afraid of calling it by its name, but don’t stigmatize. If you manage to enter into dialogue, you can move on to the next steps.

    WHERE DO I STAND?

    A significant obstacle in becoming a professional is paying too much attention to negative things. Players often focus on what they can’t do or on their mistakes. To keep things balanced, it’s necessary to make them aware of their strengths, which will become the basis for future work.

    To do that, ask the player to name such strengths or write them down. Most probably, he will quickly object. The players I work with usually ask if they could start from their weak points. It’s sometimes necessary to guide and encourage them a bit in the beginning, but it’s worth going through it to ensure proper balance in the pursuit of perfection. A player who is aware of his strengths will be better at facing challenges.

    If there is strong resistance, ask the following question: What is your favourite thing to do during a match or a training session? Most people prefer to do things they’re good at and avoid those that are problematic to them. Next, you can ask the player to use his strengths during a match and work on his weaker points during training sessions. It’s important to point out strengths and weaknesses precisely and give clear instructions.

    WHERE AM I GOING?

    The next step, which will make it easier for the player to pursue perfection in the right way, is determining his own goals. When most coaches plan training units, they take into account the usefulness of their exercises or games. It should be similar for the player. 

    The overriding goal of youth football is development and that’s precisely what we should care about the most. When it comes to the player, he should first of all realise where he’s going (at what level he wants to play in the future). Specifying it is very important because it makes future work easier. In this way, we determine expectations as to required skills. 

    This goal leads our way and we are on the way to develop skills. Working on development is the only element which can be entirely controlled by every player. If you don’t know the goal, you’ll never find your way.

    To make it easier, ask every player what he wants to achieve in football: at what level he wants to play, what awards he wants to win. Ask them to write it down and make their dreams come true. Every next step is the result of the goals we have set for ourselves.

    WHAT SHOULD I WORK ON?

    The essence of the pursuit of perfection is... pursuing it, or, in other words, continuous development. The best players are characterized by the fact that they always seem to be one step ahead of others. It’s not a coincidence. It happens because they plan their actions. 

    To start doing it properly, you first of all need to answer the following questions: 

    • What do you want to achieve? 
    • What skills do you have? 
    • What should you work on? 

    You also need to realise that not everything can be achieved straight away. What’s more, it’s impossible to prepare a universal plan. Depending on predispositions, every person will need to work on different skills, but one thing will never change: the requirement to continuously improve chosen areas.

    Every coach can have an impact on it by preparing the plan together with the player, by encouraging players to look for new areas they should work on and by monitoring their progress. It’s worth setting small goals, discussing them and reminding players about them before training. 

    The best way to inculcate the spirit of perfectionism into your players is not only giving them the right advice, but also setting an example. We should keep pursuing perfection ourselves, but at the same time admit that we make mistakes. Let’s speak courageously about our goals. Let’s change, diversify and improve training sessions and our attitude towards training. In the end, man is a social creature and the best way to learn is through imitating actions, not words.

    To paraphrase Augustine of Hippo, as long as you are developing, you remain a perfectionist. Perfectionism becomes professionalism when you take control over the things that can be fully controlled by the player by distracting him from failures and directing his attention to actions. This advice seems to be simple, but the difficult thing is to stay on this path.

    Łukasz Rutkowski

    Mental Coach

    Mental coach of KGHM Zagłębie Lubin Football Academy

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