Danny Jackson in action - Photo Credit: Jenni Conner
Danny Jackson on U.S. Elite Soccer: Getting in the Game Mentally
What we can learn from Europe about developing mental stamina in youth players.
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.
Becoming an Elite Pro Player - Being prepared mentally.
There’s no doubt elite youth soccer is on the upswing in the USA. More kids are playing than ever before, leagues are thriving through better coaching and our professional teams are benefiting from our ever-improving infrastructure.
Physically, technically and tactically, the U.S. is closing the gap on countries where soccer – or football – is the national sport. But how do we achieve that fourth crucial element that’s critical in taking America to the next level – mental fortitude?
In Europe and South America, a culturally-rooted, well-developed system nurtures talented young players, carrying them from youth academies to the pros. Training is intense, designed to create seasoned professionals over a period of years. There’s grittiness to the competition – these kids want to make it. Badly.
Some players feel success on the field is their only way out of tough circumstances. In the U.S., basketball and football attract these deeply self-motivated, hungry young players. But soccer has traditionally been less intense, less developed, and a bastion of the more economically comfortable.
So how do we create this mental grit in our youth soccer players, shaping them into men and women who can compete internationally? What can we learn from the intense and disciplined youth training schools in Europe and South America – their residential academy programs?
Lessons from Leeds United
Growing up in England, I had the good fortune at 9 years old to join the Leeds United School of Excellence, one of the better youth programs in the country. It started as a one-day-per-week practice, with high-level coaching in a fiercely competitive environment. In England, all professional teams have these feeder programs, which provide free training to talented youth. We were able to continue playing on our league and school teams for a short while, in addition to the School of Excellence. But that quickly changed, when we committed to Leeds full time.
Over the years, more and more friends were cut, leaving only the best, hardest-working players. New players joined from across the country, and each year the competition grew tougher. It was like a tryout every week. By 16, I had graduated high school and was a full-time youth soccer player, living and training at the Leeds United Residential Academy, the first of its kind in England. From the local players I played with in my formative years, only three signed on to the academy – myself, Jonathan Woodgate, and Paul Robinson. Other players came to the squad from all over the world, such as Harry Kewell, who came all the way from Australia. We traveled widely, playing other elite youth teams, such as Manchester United, Liverpool, and Arsenal.
Growing up in this highly-competitive environment, we became hardened; we knew all practices were serious.
The American system of college before going pro will not work for soccer.
And, I loved college soccer.
We watched friends come and go, and the level of play become increasingly skilled. It wasn’t thrown at us all at once, though. We grew into the intensity and embraced it.
It was an amazing experience; players from all over the world lived in a dormitory and trained hard every day in the same complex as the Leeds United pros. But soccer wasn’t our only responsibility. We had designated jobs, like polishing the cleats of the pros and cleaning the facility. My personal job was to pump and clean 60 soccer balls every day, checking the pressure, preparing the bags for practice. Each morning, our bedrooms were checked. Our beds had to be made, the sinks and showers had to shine, the carpet had to be free of dirt.
We were extremely disciplined and carried this mentality onto the field.
We were best friends off the field but fierce enemies on, fighting each and every day, competing for a starting position in Saturday’s game. We prepared tirelessly for the end goal: professional play. Every day was a test in physical, mental and technical stamina.
In addition to pursuing my sporting dreams, I also attended junior college to pursue my academic degree. (I would soon decide to continue my education and play soccer at the University of North Carolina, the right choice for me.) But some of my teammates didn’t finish high school and for many, formal education was over.
Many viewed professional soccer as the only way out, and this reality was never more clear than through the eyes of some of my opponents. I competed against some players who had two options in life – pro soccer or working in the coal mines. Imagine how hard they worked and how hard they played. They desperately wanted to succeed and worked with a toughness and determination that is difficult to comprehend for many soccer players in this country.
These academies were the blueprint for developing young soccer players throughout Europe, and are still thriving today. It’s an intense model that creates experienced, highly-disciplined professionals who can handle intense competitive pressure without crumbling. In fact, players are being recruited at even younger ages now and finishing their educations at local schools.
It’s undoubtedly not for everyone. But it’s a model to study and consider. The lessons I learned in the Leeds United Academy still serve me today. I don’t have to force myself to work hard, it’s part of my fabric. I know how to handle competition and I know how to leave it on the field. And I know how to perform under pressure; I keep going. I learned to never let up.
American elite soccer – past and future
In the U.S., college soccer used to be the route to the pros. That works well for football and basketball, but probably won’t work for soccer, long-term. These programs just aren’t intense enough, and I say that as someone who loved college soccer and had a successful career at UNC. But if you want to develop the very best players, who can compete on the world stage, the level and duration of play, competition and pressure is just not there in U.S. college soccer. If you look at international stars, they are practicing daily, playing in front of real fans and earning professional wages at 17 or 18 years old.
Like baseball, soccer may ultimately route players through farm teams into the pros at a younger age. When competing internationally, the difference between coming into the pros at 22 years old vs. 18 is vast. Keep in mind most European 18-year-old pros have trained intensely from very young ages. The recent signing of Argentinian 7-year-old Leonel Angel Coira to Real Madrid’s youngest division may be extreme, but it demonstrates the European passion for early player development.
The U.S. is also moving towards more intense development of youth athletes. Residential programs, such as the Bollittieri Academy in Florida, provide a competitive environment for committed players. The American elite youth soccer system is also increasingly focused on excellence, through well-designed programs, challenging coaching and stronger infrastructure. And more professional teams, such as the Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps, are creating “schools of excellence” – academies where talented young players are immersed in highly competitive environments under professional tutelage.
The pros also sponsor U-16 and U-18 academy feeder teams. These programs are funded by the pro teams, at no cost to the players – a huge plus, providing opportunities to players of all demographics. I am sure this accessibility, which allows the best, hungriest players to thrive, will improve the level of play, and open the door for many more young athletes. These environments need to be tough, challenging and immensely rewarding. They should be filled with motivated players, not just kids whose parents can afford elite soccer. Dedicated players deserve environments that push them – it’s too hard to do alone.
It will be interesting to observe how the training philosophies of Jurgen Klinsmann, an experienced European coach and immensely decorated player, who now heads the U.S. Men’s National Team, will trickle down to youth soccer. I am sure his influence will extend beyond his squad to the youth infrastructure. I predict the growing focus on elite youth athletes will continue, with an emphasis on improving play at younger ages to support the ambitious goals up-top. Talented players will be tracked from younger ages and quality coaching stressed earlier.
As soccer in this country continues to develop, we’ll create more young players with the mental grit to compete at the highest levels, nationally and internationally. These players will be better prepared for the pressures and competition of professional soccer.
If we focus on mental stamina – and progress in that area as we have in the arenas of tactics, technique and athletics – the U.S. will be a true force on the international field.
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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.