(A modified version of this article originally appeared in Soccer Nation on October 2, 2013).
How can two players with similar overall athleticism and skill levels, who are in the same training environment with the same coaches, have very different playing careers and very different amounts of personal success over time? How do some players improve so much faster than others in almost every aspect of the game - in skill acquisition, game understanding, and sport psychology? Why do some players handle adversity better than others, and persist in the face of the same obstacles that stop others?
While the answers to these questions are complicated and multi-leveled, and psychologists would have slightly varied responses than physiologists, there would be one common contrast in the answer of almost every expert:
Some athletes take responsibility for their own goals and actions, embrace learning and challenge, and accept personal accountability for their destiny. On the other hand, some athletes create the cause of their own failure by blaming others for shortcomings, making excuses for setbacks, and refusing responsibility for their destiny.
In a recent presentation to a group of aspiring youth players in California, Jurgen Klinsmann, head coach of the US Men’s National Team, repeatedly emphasized the importance of personal accountability and choice in taking advantage of opportunities to be successful:
“It’s all down to you guys what you’re going to do with your opportunities. Whenever someone opens a door for you and gives you a chance to show and prove how good you are, take that chance. Hopefully coaches will show you that level. But you’re going to have to decide your own path. You are your own driving force …
You are the driving force. We can tell you certain things, but you have to do it. … Maybe you’re tired after 70 minutes and if you lose the ball we expect you to chase the ball back. But I can’t do that run for you … It’s you who makes the decision. That’s the beauty of soccer. That it’s all driven by you, not by us coaches. We’re just helpers …”
Klinsmann’s advice to young players, is incredibly similar to the constant improvement mentality ascribed to Arizona Diamondbacks baseball player Paul Goldschmidt in a recent NY Times article. When trying to explain how Goldschmidt went from a 49th round high school draft pick, to an average minor league player, to a MLB All-Star candidate, coach after coach (and many veteran players) described his constant determination to learn more, ask questions, and work incredibly hard on executing on every piece of advice he was given:
“To the hitting coach, he would ask: How do I become a consistent major league hitter? To the infield coach: How do I become a Gold Glove first baseman? To the strength coach: How do I change my body to get in the best shape possible? … he trusted the coaches implicitly … with success on the field came more refined questions, about handling failure, dealing with umpires, anything to give him an edge … He’s done such a great job of listening to everything and channeling how it works for him … He asks guys everything – about ground balls, footwork, counts, swings, setups, where to sit in the box, what I’m doing. You name it, he’s asking questions.”
The message doesn’t end with soccer and baseball. In a Grantland article about improvements in the play and skill of Lebron James over the past year, a similar theme of personal determination, work, and accountability was identified. The recipe for Lebron James, one of the best NBA players of all time, to improve was simple –train harder, with self-imposed discipline and accountability, and with more focus than most athletes dream of. His own words show that this drive doesn’t come from outside, it is internal:
"It’s work. It’s a lot of work. It’s being in workouts, and not accomplishing your goal, and paying for it. So, if I get to a spot in a workout and want to make eight out of 10, if I don’t make eight of 10, then I run. I push myself to the point of exhaustion until I make that goal. So you build up that mentality that you got to make that shot and then use that in a game situation — it’s the ultimate feeling, when you’re able to work on something and implement it."
Lebron’s comments add a vivid description of the exhausting physical work that it takes to be the best, and how the drive to do that work, and to be accountable to yourself for your performance goals, is key to success. Former Australian Olympic Rower Bo Hansen describes this as “discretionary effort” and uses it to explain why some athletes achieve more, and perform at a higher level over the long-term, than others:
“Discretionary effort is the effort which is opted in. Not the effort you have to give, but the effort you choose to give. It is the difference between the effort required to perform to the base level in your role on the team and the effort required to lift your on and off field performance statistics to a higher level. It is about doing your job to the highest possible level of execution … Players and athletes who give high levels of discretionary effort behave in a way which is always in the team’s best interest.”
The above examples provide four different messages, given by four very different and successful people, in four different sports, about what it takes to be successful. Each message, to one degree or another, emphasizes the same concepts – hard work and personal accountability:
Athletes that execute on these four messages are far more successful than those that don’t. Going back to the questions at the beginning of this article, not surprisingly, these athletes also improve far faster than those that don’t execute on these messages. Athletes that do not see themselves as the driving force in their development and performance, and who cannot force themselves to the highest mental and physical effort levels, simply don’t improve very fast.
The best part about these messages – is that every athlete has the opportunity to choose to execute on them personally, every day. Every athlete can choose to accept the opportunity to be great, be responsible for their goals and development, give discretionary effort to their team, and improve quickly.