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Natural Talent or Hard Work? Danny Jackson on What is More important in Soccer?
Natural Talent or Hard Work? Danny Jackson on What is More important in Soccer?  | Korrio, Danny Jackson, Soccer, Seattle Sounders, Coaching Girls

Danny Jackson in action - Photo Credit: Jenni Conner

Danny Jackson on What counts more: natural talent or hard work?

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.  

It’s an age-old debate: natural talent or hard work? Which is most important, in the making of a premier athlete?

We know the truth: both. 

The world’s top athletes bring tremendous natural ability to their games; they have coordination, speed and naturally-athletic bodies. Their minds assess all the moving parts of the game with lightening speed, projecting their bodies to optimal positions… coordinating their feet, body, hands and heads in a symphony of perfect balance. Soccer, in particular, is so fluid – there is no starting and stopping.

It’s all about instinct and reaction. Executing the perfect play is about putting yourself in the same situation again and again, so it becomes automatic (practice, practice, practice).

But it’s also about an almost indescribable confluence of mind, body and even spirit. This is the magic top athletes consistently deliver, and why so many people love to watch them.

But between the prodigal Lionel Messis and Michael Jordans and the “Rudys” of the world – those hard-working benchwarmers who toil relentlessly for glimmers of triumph – are lots of other players. Some working hard, some not, exploiting varying degrees of talent with varying levels of success. And many factors – beyond genetics – shape how and whether those athletes develop and thrive.

Over the years, on the many competitive teams I’ve played on and coached, I’ve run into four basic kinds of players; we’ll call them The Hard Worker, The Wasted Talent, The Influential Teammate and The Ultimate Athlete.

The Hard Worker

As I joked above, this is the Rudy of the team. These are players with great attitudes who work really hard and deserve much more credit than they ever receive. They don’t get much playing time, and when they do play, it’s mostly during inconsequential games, or those with inevitable results. It’s unfortunate, and sometimes hard to watch. But what they lack in skill, they make up ten-fold in effort and energy.

A successful team, especially at the youth and college levels, must have these teammates – they are so valuable. They provide a solid effort when less dependable players aren’t performing well and bolster teammates with their spirit and determination.

They’re consistent in practice and games – the consummate teammates, supporting their colleagues and pushing every player to exceed. Their dedication and grit often inspire others to give more. I was always incredibly respectful and appreciative of our squad players. I would take a player who gave honest effort above an incredibly talented prima donna any day. But the reality is, a successful team needs both.

There is one common requirement of all players, and a question that must be asked – are you contributing? Coaches must express their expectations to each player, emphasizing a game plan of success for the team. It is then up to each player to execute. One thing I know, the Hard Worker will always play an incredibly valuable role with consistency, commitment and passion.

The Wasted Talent

This is obviously the most frustrating type of player to deal with, as a teammate or coach. This is the person with obvious natural ability, who lacks the work ethic or drive to maximize it.

Coaches plead with these players to work harder – after all, others would kill for just a little of the talent they’re throwing away! It seems unfair. But when players are still demonstrating these bad work habits at the premier level, it’s a sign something probably went wrong in their younger years.

Often, natural talents rise early; they’re pushed forward because they’re faster, more skilled, or sometimes simply bigger than their peers. Coaches can coddle these players, or fail to challenge them. By doing this, they do a huge disservice to these talented youth, who could develop into great players, but instead jog through easy practices, nurturing an inflated view of their skills.

The Wasted Talent coasts through his or her early years in third gear, out-playing everyone. Then suddenly, their worlds get rocked. It doesn’t happen instantly, but creeps up on them over time. Maybe other players grow bigger and compete more effectively against them. Maybe they’re pushed into a higher level of play, where everyone is a fierce competitor. For these prodigal players, it feels like they’ve been hit on the side of the head. They don’t see it coming, because they’ve been sheltered against it. It can be a hard wake-up call, because when that inevitable time arrives, many have simply not developed the necessary natural characteristics and mental strength to compete at premier levels.

This is where it’s most glaring that natural talent is not enough. It’s the entry fee into the room, after that it’s all about hard work and guidance. These players have the talent, but they have to want success – badly enough to work hard. Youth sports is about having fun and competing. Sadly, an athlete who has been built up so much and then falls flat can experience disappointment and even embarrassment. But it’s not all their fault. They haven’t received the guidance to look ahead, and prepare their skills for the next level.

Another version of this kind of athlete is the person who is so problematic that his or her bad attitude gets in the way of serious talent. Terrell Owens is an example of a player no one wants to deal with anymore. Players like him have an expiration date; coaches and teammates only want to play with them so long, then they’re shipped off.

No player wants to be viewed as a failure, a person who could and should have done more with his or her gifts. All athletes should be able to reflect on their youth sports experiences with fond memories and positive thoughts – and that is the biggest responsibility and accomplishment for any youth coach. 

The Influential TeammateSoccerNation News Youth Soccer Insights by Danny Jackson

These players lie somewhere between the Hard Worker and The Ultimate Athlete. They have decent natural ability, which they amplify with extremely hard work, making them solid, valuable team members.

Most teams at the premier, college and pro levels are full of these players; in fact, they likely make-up the bulk of competitive teams. They’re not superstars, but they’re strong, dependable contributors. They have grit, stamina and determination, putting in hours of practice to build their skill, speed, conditioning and strategy.

They can even be the team leader – they might not be the most accomplished and talented player on the field, but they could have the best leadership skills and set the best example for the team. Obviously, this player beats out the lackadaisical natural talent every time. 

The Ultimate Athlete

These players, simply put, are unstoppable.

They are athletes with immense natural talent who work very hard – inspiring us all with their skills and attitude.

They don’t take their talent for granted, they build on it, maximizing their potential and elevating the entire game. These athletes have true longevity and are the world’s best players, earning the ultimate respect from their coaches, teammates and fans.

Think Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Lionel Messi and David Beckham. This is not to say all these players sprang into the world, perfectly formed. Messi is probably the best player in the world right now, but he was and still is small in stature. But his size was never an obstacle, he used it as a weapon. He developed excellent dribbling skills and speed, and he will still chase players down with a vengeance. Speed is not Beckham’s forte, but he works incredibly hard and has an amazing ability to strike a ball.

Now, in his mid-30s – when most players are washed up – he’s an icon, playing for the LA Galaxy after years of success with Real Madrid and Manchester United. He has great respect as a teammate and a person because of his lifelong dedication to fitness, and his commitment to working harder than everyone else.

How to Grow Excellence

So what goes into making these types of players – besides the inexplicable, uncontrollable gift of good athletic genes?

The first thing is to be realistic. An 11-year-old is not a great player. He or she is good – yes. Influential? Sure. Talented? Absolutely.

SoccerNation News: Ronaldo Insights by Danny Jackson

But a great player is Pele and Franz Beckenbauer, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

They committed themselves to doing everything it takes to be considered great – to be considered the best. Don’t throw these empty words and statements around with young players. Make sure players know they are good, but ensure they know what level of play is considered great. This will provide motivation to excel, continually improve, and set incredibly high goals.

There’s no doubt a player’s personality and capacity for commitment is key; kids who work hard improve. There is no substitution for touches on the ball, and years of practice and hard work develop quality and skill. But it’s always interesting to see how players’ sports personalities are shaped by their physical development.

It’s very rare, for instance, that a talented 5-year-old will remain dominant from Tiny Tots to the pros.

Players go through ups and downs as their bodies evolve. Players who develop young are surpassed. Players who grow slowly develop tough, spirited traits that serve them well when they grow.

To me, equally compelling factors in a player’s success are family, culture and coaching. Many players are talented, but there’s always a tipping point where natural ability must be supplemented and guided by really good coaching – the kind of teaching that develops a gifted hard worker into a high-level player.

Like in many other countries, there are obstacles to overcome for U.S. youth players who want to participate in sports, such as their home lives and financial means. It can be very difficult for single, working parents, for example, to juggle several kids and many responsibilities, to invest the resources and time to focus on one child’s talents.

There are players facing these challenges all over the world, and unfortunately they don’t all receive the same opportunity to succeed.

The American premier soccer system is still built very firmly on family support. We always hope that talented youths will be found – that coaches, scouts and mentors are all on the lookout for athletes who just might go all the way. But it costs money to put players in the spotlight – to travel to tournaments and showcases.

Scholarships, of course, are available, but the available money does not reach even a fraction of those in need, and that’s only taking into consideration players who know such opportunities exist.

In Europe and South America, there are avenues to find talented players at very young ages and channel them into intense, pre-professional training.

There is little-to-no cost for their families. Professional organizations build programs, casting a net over 3,000 young, talented players in their communities. Over the years, that number drops from 3,000 to 300 to 30, to the eventual three players who may have a realistic chance to play in the bright lights of professional soccer. But the opportunity is there for many to succeed. The system in America is improving, but it is not there yet. 

Recognizing this, I think we – as coaches and parents – need to be mindful of guiding these talented young players when we spot them. They could be on your rec team, your school team, in the park or playing on the streets. Many kids play on teams coached by mom or dad when they’re young. But they reach a point when they need higher-level training to excel. In my experience, the age where they really grow needy for that next challenge is around 11 or 12. This is often when the parent coach reaches his or her expertise limit, if not before.

At this age, players suddenly develop a real grasp on their environment, teammates and what they’re being taught. Natural talent and imagination should be there already – but how can we guide them to the next level?

They want to kick into gear and those who want to excel are hungry for a challenge; without it, they flounder, grow bored and ultimately give up.

This is the age when they can really dig in, or choose to prioritize sports behind all the other growing priorities in their lives. The important point here is that, in an ideal world, every player should have the opportunity to make a choice.

SoccerNation News legendary head coach Ron Newman
Legendary head coach Ron Newman surrounded by his former players as he is honored by championship team, the San Diego Sockers

As a soccer community, we must channel these youth into more competitive, demanding programs, if we want them to reach their full potential. (And if we don’t want those with natural talent to languish, becoming too lazy or unskilled to rise to the next level, should they want to go there.)

I think we also need to remain mindful that the parent-driven system is inherently stacked against kids without the means to find their way to tryouts, practices and games. We need to watch out for these talented players and connect them with excellent mentors and coaches, support their families and assist programs that serve needy kids.

The right coach makes all the difference, for the talented hard-working player and the would-be superstar. Good coaches can teach players to enhance their most powerful tools, and minimize their weaknesses. Maybe a player has a weak left foot; a good coach can neutralize that weakness.

A good coach challenges players and inspires them to persevere through the misery that precedes mastery.

The goal – as coaches, parents and mentors – is to identify those talented, hard-working kids who can and want to work hard, who want to go all in.

We want to train and guide them, giving them the skills and resources they need to make good choices at key moments, whether they make it to a premier team, college ball or even the pros.

Hopefully, this will mean fewer potential athletes living with regrets, always wondering if they could have achieved more.

Ronaldo Image Photo Credit: Aaron Jaffe

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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