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Danny Jackson on Helping Top Athletes Reach Potential
Danny Jackson on Helping Top Athletes Reach Potential | Korrio, Danny Jackson, Soccer, Seattle Sounders, Coaching Girls

Danny Jackson in action - Photo Credit: Jenni Conner

Danny Jackson on How can we help top athletes reach their full potential?

Daniel (Danny) Jackson is a former Major League Soccer (MLS) player and was captain of the Seattle SoundersSN is pleased to bring readers Danny Jackson’s column with insights into the professional world of soccer.  

Minimize Distractions, Practice Smart, Build a Team and Speak the Truth are just a few of the crucial tips to help today’s youth players reach their potential.

I am a huge fan of preparation, on and off the field. It is the key to creating successful elite players, whether those athletes are headed for college soccer or the pros. As coaches – and parents – of premier players, it’s important to prepare our kids for success, as well as the challenges they’ll face playing at the highest levels of their sport. Pressure, competition, setbacks and attention (both positive and negative) are all part of the game for top athletes. I’ve seen many sports careers fail to reach their potential because athletes couldn’t handle the unique pressures. And once a player deviates off course, his or her play will likely be affected; once performance is compromised, careers are jeopardized. It’s a harsh cycle ambitious athletes must strive to avoid.

A player must stay focused on his or her game, and the team’s success. It’s important to remember that – at the college and pro levels – it’s about performance on the field. All rewards stem from stellar performance; everything else – good and bad – is a by-product of how a player delivers. Ultimately, a player must be able to focus on execution, constantly striving to improve and excel.

So how do we help promising premier players achieve? There is no magic formula, unfortunately. But here are some lessons I’ve learned, as a player and coach, to help talented players soar.

Extend the discipline

A very basic, solid strategy for developing a successful player is to work on extending the discipline you require on the field to all areas of players’ lives. When I was a youth player, training in the Leeds United Academy residential program, we were required to clean our rooms every day and perform a number of tasks to keep our equipment and environment in order. It was a pain sometimes, as a 16-year-old boy, to clean up every day, but it was good for me and my teammates. We embraced an overall mindset of order that helped us maintain discipline and rigor on the field.

Counsel your players to embrace discipline in all areas of their lives, from their school work to home lives, appearance to practice. Use soccer as a framework to structure the rest of their lives. Let’s face it, it’s hard for players to focus effectively on sports when they’re failing in school or immersed in disorder. Encourage them to apply the same effort and excellence to everything they touch. They may be surprised at how good the structure makes them feel.

Don’t forget that talented players need discipline as much as anyone; sometimes, coaches fall into the trap of rewarding star players too early. This is a mistake. Young athletes, who dominate early, often succeed because they matured faster than their peers. Their physicality is their weapon and they overpower their competition. They often lean on this too much, sacrificing skill and tactical development. It is the coach’s responsibility to prevent this. If this factor is not addressed, these athletes can struggle most when physical prowess evens out. It can be difficult to absorb that they are no longer head and shoulders above everyone else – in every sense of the word.

It is imperative for the coach to push the elite athlete. Challenge that player every day, in a team setting and individually. Don’t coach below him or her. This strategy will elevate the game of the elite player, and challenge everybody else. It will leave some behind – that is inevitable – but as a coach you must know your group and push them to maximize their abilities. If they’re taught to work hard and develop discipline, they can challenge themselves and rise to the occasion when necessary.

Minimize distractions

As a coach of elite players, you must help your players cut through the “noise” of their personal lives and focus on training. This means getting involved and tracking what’s going on. Are they having family problems? School or social issues? These can affect how they play and, ultimately, whether they can succeed at the highest levels. The best athletes learn to manage outside stresses, to shut out the world and concentrate on their work. Learn what’s challenging your players, so you can help them manage their stress and problem solve. I have seen talented athletes whose personal problems overwhelmed their natural abilities and sunk their promising careers. They might have excelled on the field, but they couldn’t focus in school or in other important areas of their lives, and their failings brought them down.

We all have problems and issues to deal with, but some manage them more successfully than others. Help your players gain perspective on their personal issues and other responsibilities so they can succeed on the field and in life.

Practice smart

People often wonder how much elite players should practice. Again, there is no formula for how much practice equals great performance. Some advise 30 to 40 minutes of practice every other day. Personally, I played every day. I understood that every time I touched the ball, I got better. But what really motivated me to go outside and kick the ball around was that I loved it. Your passion must be the driving force. If personal development and practice becomes a chore, don’t do it. It’s better to practice hard for 20 minutes than mess around for an hour, accomplishing nothing. When your head’s not in it, it’s easy to get sloppy and develop bad habits. And if the desire to improve is not there at all, then premier sport is probably not for you.

For those aspiring premier athletes, practice with discipline and rest when you need to. Rest is as important as work. If you’re generally pushing yourself and giving your best, you won’t lose anything from some downtime to recover and regenerate. In fact, you’ll benefit. Remember, elite athletes are pushing their bodies to the extreme. Their muscles need rest to rebuild and get ready for the next push. I remember being in pre-season in England years ago. It was hot and we were working hard. Several players had already dropped out, their muscles seized up in cramps. We were all clenching our teeth, grinding through the pain, resisting our bodies’ urges to vomit. All I heard while running sprints through the trees was, “Money in the bank. Money in the bank.” On the verge of falling down, all I wanted was that person to stop shouting – to let me focus on getting through this. But those motivating words had meaning. Every painful minute was a deposit into our reserves. And when you needed it most, in the final ten minutes of a game, you could withdraw from it, making you more powerful than your opponent. It made sense to me and became a catalyst during future workouts when pain threatened to outweigh my capacity to run. At the end of the day, when you’re relaxing on the couch, there is no better feeling than that achy sensation in your muscles when you have worked to your max. Enjoy it…

From a coaching perspective, outside of fitness training, work to keep practice engaging; don’t extend drills too long. Do an exercise for four minutes, for example, then have players rest for 30 seconds and switch it up. This keeps everything sharp. If players aren’t responsive or seem confused, don’t force it. You don’t want them just going through the motions; step back and come at it a different way. Pay attention to your players’ body language and communication, both verbal and nonverbal.

Build a team

For an elite player to really succeed, it’s ideal to gain buy-in from all the people in his or her life, in regards to goals, training and needs. If that’s not possible, it’s not a dealbreaker; plenty of elite athletes succeeded without family support. But support decreases the chances a player will be derailed by personal issues. As a coach, this means good communication with parents and families. Remember, many parents have invested a great deal of time and money into their children’s sports lives; they are your allies and are likely to be highly committed to the player’s ultimate success.

Sometimes, reaching out to teachers can be useful too, or other influential figures in a player’s life. I have witnessed, for example, a teacher so committed to a player’s success that he regularly drove him to practice. The student had no other way to get there, so his teacher pitched in. That’s a team effort! (That initially struggling player, by the way, improved vastly in school and got in far fewer fights after starting soccer; he loved the game and had only played street soccer up until that point. His success on the field translated to the rest of his life, too.) Remember, for some players, soccer can be an escape, a crucial outlet. But for others, it’s just another activity in a myriad of things they do.

Talk to parents, teachers and other influential figures to elicit support for your strategies and goals – your shared game plan – and to assess what else is going on in your players’ lives. Let’s face it; it takes a lot of time and effort to get really involved. How much you want to invest depends on you. But really good coaches dig in and build support structures with families and teachers.

Support needy players

Some players don’t have strong families to support them. What do you do when there’s no one to drive a kid to practice and pay for uniforms? Again, it depends on your personal commitment and capacity for involvement. But the world of sports is full of coaches who invested in talented players… and enjoyed the ultimate pay-off of seeing their protégées succeed.

Are you one of those coaches? The kind of coach who can call a teacher or school guidance counselor to make a plan that supports a player? Who will drive players home or require they do their homework? Who will engage in the challenges facing their entire family and help? Some of your needier players might be aiming to succeed in sports to support their families. It’s good to know if your players are shouldering these types of burdens, so you can help them deal with that pressure.

I will never forget coaching a team in Seattle with Emerson “Skip” Robbins, owner of the E.E. Robbins engagement and wedding ring stores. He ran a team called International that was not premier level, but he treated his players like top athletes. He supported those kids and their families in so many ways, they wanted for nothing. But in return, he expected responsible behavior and demanded their best effort, and they delivered. One player, who came to America after surviving a refugee camp, used this opportunity to empower his own future. He graduated high school, earning an academic scholarship to university. Skip’s selfless contribution to everyone on that team was a lesson for all of us. He made a huge, inspiring impact in that boy’s future and the futures of many other young men who played for him. The concepts of athletic development and characteristics needed to succeed are universal and will impact players both on and off the field. Skip created an environment of excellence, where maximizing potential was not an expectation, but a demand. It was wonderful to see such buy-in from so many players and families, from so many different places and backgrounds.

Speak the truth

At a certain age – say 14 years old, around the eighth or ninth grade – you can start having very real conversations with elite players about their career goals and opportunities. Mentally and physically they’re still developing and they’re also in crucial need of guidance. Be blunt and honest with them about the challenges they’ll face and the college and professional landscapes. Give them real information they’ll need to succeed and offer constructive criticism. Tell them what you think they need to work on, what their chances are, what they face. Give them the tools they need to prosper and if they run with your advice, great. If not, they probably won’t make it and maybe they’re not cut out to play college or professional sports. If you treat your youth players respectfully, more adult, they’ll mature more quickly. Start these conversations early; wait too long and it will be too late.

Prepare for money and media

There also will come a time when discussions about media and financial issues are appropriate. Bring in experts or connect players with mentors to discuss these issues, or lead your own workshops.

At the Leeds United Academy, we received lessons in financial planning and media skills; we talked about investing and how to conduct interviews. (Don’t stand in front of a beer ad during a TV interview, for instance, if you’re working in youth soccer.)

You have to strike a delicate balance here – you don’t want to offer media and financial guidance before players need it; this might take focus off their play and give false hope to those who might not make it. But you do want to offer guidance to those who will need it. The effect of fast money and too much attention on a young career can be devastating for those unprepared for these by-products of success. And soccer is not a 40-year career; players need to plan for life after soccer – financially, emotionally and from a career perspective. Players should be guided through these issues.

Remember too, that excellent coaches protect their players; Alex Ferguson, coach of Manchester United, carefully manages the media exposure of his young players. He wants them focused on their work, rather than worrying about what people are saying about them. Premature media coverage can create hype and pressure when a player needs to focus on practice and performance.

Create order and ritual

Again, discipline in any area of an elite athlete’s life can have a positive effect on the whole. Help create stability through rituals and routine. I remember reading about John Wooden, a hugely successful and influential basketball coach at UCLA in the 60s and 70s. He had one focus during the first day of the NCAA basketball pre-season: socks. His reasoning was that something very small could have hugely negative impacts. Wrinkled socks could easily create blisters, knocking players out of practice for lengthy periods of time. He wanted his players to stay healthy, so he created a bonding ritual for his new freshman. While other coaches rushed players through drills as soon as NCAA regulations permitted, Wooden focused on how to put on socks.

Small things matter and rituals can be powerful. Top athletes often have their own routines and even superstitions that help them prepare mentally. I know I got to the point in my pro career where I undressed and dressed for games the same way every time. It was calming and helped me focus. I also always played with clean, shiny cleats, even as a youth. As a coach, you can help players establish discipline and good habits by creating healthy rituals that bond your team together and mentally prepare players for high-pressure performances.

Ultimately, when it comes to elite play, it’s all about details. This is often overlooked. But so many intricate elements must unite to create the complete package. A team is not one player; it is everybody buying into a common goal. As an individual, all the years of practice are designed for those few golden moments when you get to touch the ball and have a positive effect on the game. Will you execute with skill and confidence? Make good choices? Support your team? So many elements go into preparing for those crucial, fleeting plays.

Young players always dream about that moment in a big game when they score the winning goal or hit that 3-pointer on the buzzer. As a spectator, the trappings of a professional athlete seem fantastic – accolades, adulation, money and fame. But this external-facing image is merely the tip of the iceberg. Years of work went into that success, that one moment in which they shine. But the lonely road of running to build fitness, thousands of hours of personal practice and development and ups and downs of premier sports is not seen – and often times, not appreciated.

The high-level athlete has committed his or her life to preparing for that moment. They know what it takes and they are ready for the challenge.  As coaches, we have much to do with whether our players fulfill their full potential and are ready when the ball comes their way. The vision of scoring that goal is not a dream for these players, but a reality they are preparing for. Visualizing that moment helps drive them forward and stay focused.

Preparation in elite sports can be viewed through two distinct prisms: the work required to become a game winner and how players handle the attention once they achieve. 

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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.

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