Danny Jackson in action - Photo Credit: Jenni Conner
Danny Jackson on Becoming an Elite Pro Soccer Player: Being Prepared Mentally
The Upside of College Soccer: what you gain from the college experience
Daniel (Danny) Jackson is a former Major League Soccer (MLS) star and captain of the Seattle Sounders. SN is pleased to bring readers Danny Jackson’s new column with insights into the professional world of soccer. So many kids dream of going pro, few accomplish this and fewer become team captains and then go on to become youth coaches.
I’ve been thinking (and writing) about the benefits of the European academy-based youth soccer system, which develops professional players from very young ages, preparing them thoroughly for all aspects of highly competitive international play.
"American College ... It's a unique system that's hard for the rest of the world to fathom"
I came through this system myself, playing for the Leeds United Academy in England. But as a former student athlete in the U.S., I’m also a huge proponent of the American college soccer system, despite my questions regarding its ability to create players fierce enough to compete on the world stage. I’ve never regretted leaving home at 18 to play soccer and study at the University of North Carolina. It was one of the best experiences of my life and I enjoyed every minute of it.
I believe both systems – college and academies – have strengths and weaknesses that are flipsides of the same coin. The major weakness of the intensely-focused academy system, solely designed to feed pro teams, is that it offers players little to no plan for life after soccer. The strength of the college system is that it develops the whole person.
American colleges prepare student athletes for life after professional sports – which, to borrow the immortal words of philosopher Thomas Hobbes, can be “poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
But let’s discuss college soccer.
In the U.S., college soccer has traditionally been the path to the pros. (In England, the choice is most often education or sport.) Here, the two are paired, providing wonderful opportunities for thousands of athletes to compete in many different sports. It’s a unique system that’s hard for the rest of the world to fathom. I remember when I went home after my first semester at UNC, I had a hard time explaining college life. My friends and family were amazed that 100,000 people would turn out to watch college football, or that 25,000 people would cram into an arena for a basketball game.
College sports in this country are vast, well-funded and well-organized. It’s an amazing thing.
Athletes have to go through college admissions, like everyone else, but they do have a serious advantage in gaining acceptance. They have something colleges want: athletic skill. But in my experience, UNC treated student athletes right. Of course, there is additional assistance, such as free tutoring after practice, to help in-season athletes manage their busy schedules. But UNC professors didn’t cut athletes slack; we had to perform in the classroom and on the field. Maybe the experiences of football and basketball players were a little different, but as soccer players, we knew our professors had the same academic expectations for us as they did for other students.
Student-athletes at U.S. colleges face unique challenges while reaping substantial rewards. In many ways, they are pro athletes, with the addition of academics and study. In sports, they work extremely hard – training and meeting for hours every day, traveling extensively, and making lots of money for their schools and local media.
There are legitimate questions – and plenty of controversy – over how these athletes should be compensated. With heavy NCAA regulation and complex personal schedules, working and earning money becomes almost impossible. Room and board only takes you so far, and as the cost of living increases, financially needy athletes can struggle immensely.
For student-athletes, there is pressure to perform on the field every day, but they must work hard to balance athletics, academics and their social lives. Too much focus on any one aspect will lead to failure – creating a domino effect. They can’t slack in sports because they’ll lose playing time.
If they fail in school, they’ll be kicked off the team and lose their scholarship. Student-athletes do need a social life, to let off steam and learn important lessons from classmates. (My father always urged me to learn as much as I could from my peers’ perspectives, as well as my professors.) But they obviously can’t “socialize” too much.
Student-athletes must learn to manage the stress – of homesickness, performing and getting along with new people, along with the pressures of earning minutes on the field. For many, this is hard; they’ve probably been the best player on their school or league team, and avoided heavy criticism or scrutiny in the past.
There is a good chance competition was weaker, their local star shone brighter, and they could get away with more than other players. In college, everyone is top-tier and players must develop a new mental toughness regarding competition. It’s a reality check and not everyone can hack it.
It’s an environment that requires the development of complex new skills. In college, players become well-rounded. They learn how to compete in a healthy, positive way. They learn to maximize time and meet deadlines. They develop crucial communications and social skills. And they hopefully learn how to do something besides play sports. They prepare for life after the pros.
For me, college soccer was undoubtedly the best route to the pros and life beyond. Even growing up in the intense Leeds United Academy, I was a big picture guy. I wanted to play pro soccer, but I always thought… what about when I’m 30 or 40 years old? I needed a post-soccer plan.
My first exposure to American soccer came when I played at the Dallas Cup in 1997 with the Leeds United youth team. I was impressed. Later, I met someone whose son played for Rutgers. Like many English kids, I thought America was an exciting frontier and the opportunity to play soccer here sealed the deal.
I loved living in Chapel Hill. UNC, a Nike-sponsored school with one of the best college soccer programs in the country, is a special place. I want my children to go there. It was a big change for me, going from a big city in England to a small college town in the American south, but I thrived. I woke up every morning with a smile on my face, which certainly helped my mother with any anxiety she had regarding my move. For me, the balance of high-level academics and soccer was great.
I studied Political Science and Information Systems and still draw from my education today. I can’t say college soccer is for everyone, but it was perfect for me. It made me a better person, more well-rounded and fulfilled. It allowed me to come here from another country and succeed.
Even though I left the academy in England, and the fast track to professional soccer, I still got to play in the pros – maybe not at the level I dreamed of at 16 – but I still had a good career. After I retired, I was able to leverage my soccer experience into a business career. I am hungry to learn and ambitious to succeed – traits learned on the field. When I look back on my soccer experience, it’s not the results I reflect on, it’s the friendships I built and characteristics I developed. That is what I most cherish, and my college experience fully encapsulated all that is so wonderful about life as a student athlete.
As an international student coming to America 13 years ago, I would never have imagined I would be living in Seattle, happily married to an American girl, with a child, and filling a major role at an exciting new sports company. Is this the American Dream?
I feel I came away from professional sports with the very best experiences and lessons from a very demanding environment – a system that can be brutal to those who don’t prepare realistically. All pro careers come with an expiration date and players who don’t embrace this reality face trouble. Remember, as soon as you can’t perform, you are out. And that goes for coaches and players.
There are multiple reasons people succeed or fail in pro sports. Many players I grew up with had good careers. Others failed early. I know of many pros who were all washed up by 22, with no future plans. In England, thousands of players start their careers with a one-year contract. The first six months are spent trying to secure an additional contract and – if they don’t get it – the next six are spent trying to find a new club. There are 92 professional clubs in England, and every summer there are hundreds of free agents looking for a new club. The competition is fierce and many are forced to quit early. The opportunity to retire on soccer earnings varies. On one extreme is the English Premier League player who makes millions every year and retires to a castle in Europe. On the other side is the lower-level player who retires and must work manual labor to pay the bills.
Bill Shankly, the legendary Liverpool FC coach once said,
“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I'm very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
As a professional athlete, your responsibility and commitment must be to compete at your very best. You must put everything into succeeding, not just for yourself, but for the thousands of fans who support your team and pay your wages. But even with this imperative, single-minded focus, there must be a balance. What are you going to do after your sports career?
It’s not wise to ignore the inevitable, and think you’ll figure it out as it comes. Professional athletes who enter the general work force in their mid-thirties can be 10 to 15 years behind their peers on the career track. Some, with no college experience, find themselves at school – but years older and without athletic scholarships.
In the U.S., the financial picture is even more daunting. Very few players make enough money playing soccer to retire comfortably, and even if they did, what would they do next to keep interested and occupied? The earning window is unpredictable and most likely short.
A post-sports career plan is crucial. Parents and friends must keep players balanced, so they don’t fall into the abyss of identity crisis after sports careers end. Most importantly, players must figure out how to translate their invaluable pro sports experiences into new careers.
For me, I retired from soccer and was ready to take the next step. And I took that step with confidence because I had a college degree and had prepared in advance. I started my own company during my playing career and learned from the business leaders I had access to. I was able to take the best parts of my pro soccer experience and parlay them into new business ventures. And that’s when it became really apparent how well college soccer had served me.
The American soccer landscape is changing – and with the potential of more money flowing into professional soccer, this could change the way players plan their futures. Maybe more could retire off pro earnings. But if the money doesn’t change and the path to pro soccer does – with more players coming through academies and bypassing college – more thought must be given to educating youth about life after sports. Coaches and mentors must work with players, helping them make realistic plans for post-professional careers. Education must still be emphasized, and this can certainly be achieved in many different ways. Kids must be counseled that playing pro sports is just one step in the long journey of their lives.
Bill Shankly, the legendary Liverpool FC coach once said, “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I'm very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
Passion for sports will always be there, whether you are a fan, coach or player.
We all love it; we all thrive off the competition and the excitement.
For young soccer players in this country, there are more options and paths than ever before, far more than when I signed on for college soccer at UNC. The equation is much more complex, but I believe a balance of education and athletics is still the long-term key to success. My love for soccer and sports has never waned, but I have an equal passion and appreciation for family, work and friends. Happiness, in my eyes, is a balanced life, and college soccer provided the tools for me to prosper, both on and off the field.
RELATED ARTICLES: Soccer - Danny Jackson's Column
Daniel (Danny) Jackson is a former Major League Soccer player and was captain of the Seattle Sounders
for five seasons. Jackson, the Colorado Rapid
’s first round pick in the 2002 MLS draft, recently retired from professional soccer following a successful career in which he led the Seattle Sounders to two USL
National championships. At the University of North Carolina,
Jackson was a multi-year All-American, team MVP, and three-year team captain. His UNC
team won a National Championship in 2001, and he was named Soccer America National MVP
and National Championship MVP the same year. Danny was awarded the 2002 Patterson Medal
as the UNC Student Athlete of the year
Danny Jackson's recent coaching experience ranges from youth soccer at Eastside FC and the Sounders FC / ODP youth development program and speaks to high schools and youth clubs regarding the far reaching impacts of youth sports. Danny also is serving as the Director of New Business for Korrio.