Monthly Archive for December, 2022

Pelé and the origin of number 10.

10 is the number of those who dispense the play and those who make run the ball run on the pitch. 10 is the number that in 1958 by number drawing Pelé received, by chance, to play and win his first World Cup at age 17. It is also the number of Maradona, incredible champion, who also scored with the hand of God. Valentino Mazzola was number 10 for Grande Torino, and Mazzola was Jose Altafini’s nickname early in his career. 10 was Gianni Rivera, the first Italian to win the Ballon d’Or, of which Leo Messi won 6 instead, also wearing the same number. Juventus has had many number 10s, absolute champions such as Omar Sivori Michel Platini, Roberto Baggio, Zinedine Zidane, Alessandro Del Piero and Andrea Pirlo. The qualities of the 10 are those of someone who enlightens and leads the team, the 10 is as fearless as he is peremptory in his actions and shows the characteristics that Gianni Brera masterfully described when talking about one of them and that is Giuseppe Meazza (winner of the World Cup with the Italian national team in 1934 and 1938):

“Great players already existed in the world, perhaps tougher and more continuous than him, however, it did not seem to us that one could go beyond his sudden inventions, the brilliant shots, the peremptory and yet never mocking dribbles, the lonely escapes toward his lost victim of all time, the opposing goalkeeper.”[1]

The 10 bears upon himself, more than the others, the responsibility of the team; he represents its soul, its spirit. When the 10 isolates himself, the team suffers dramatically, and loses the one who everyone believes is capable of solving the game or a moment of difficulty with one of his inventions whether it is a shot, a free kick, a smarcating pass for the striker or a dribble. The 10 does not chase opponents and knows that it is “better to let the ball run, she does not sweat” (Roberto Baggio), for him “soccer is music, dance and harmony and there is nothing more cheerful than the bouncing ball” (Pelé). Besides, the 10 recognize each other, respecting each other like members of a club reserved for a few, and they know how indispensable their presence is to soccer, as Francesco Totti says of Diego Armando Maradona:

“It’s soccer, it’s the ball, like his face is on that spinning ball. What he did with the ball no one has ever done and no one ever will. He did extraordinary things, everything there was to do he did. I got to know him, and it moves me to see the picture of the two of us hugging.”

[1]  Gianni Brera, Peppin Meazza era il fòlber. Giornale Nuovo, 24 agosto 1979.

O’ Rei is gone

Brazil legend Pelé has died at the age of 82.

The original GOAT. A trailblazer. One of the finest players to ever lace up.

He will be missed by millions.

“Every child around the world who plays soccer wants to be Pelé. I have a great responsibility to show them not only how to be like a soccer player, but how to be like a man.”

ISuper-champions and rejected, an impossible relationship

The just-concluded World Cup generated a lot of enthusiasm and participation around the sport, the only one with such a worldwide dimension spread across every continent. Becoming a champion is the dream of a great many young people. Thinking of playing alongside Messi or Mbappé certainly occupies their dreams. Now the attention of these young fans is on the resumption of the league, on the likelihood that Napoli will continue in the winning streak rather than cheering for the teams they chase, will they succeed in this feat that many consider desperate. in any case what will resume will be a league with few Italian players. Young people who play soccer know that it will most likely continue to be a dream to play for the teams they cheer for. In fact, the logic of teams is to buy young but foreign players. It happens in team sports as well, but soccer is the sport most played by young people but provides few opportunities for affirmation. It is a phenomenon that affects other European countries as well, a newly published research related to Spanish soccer is titled “Ready to fail?”  In fact, it explains that juniors (14-19 years old) who aspire to become professionals (57 percent) far exceeds the number of players who will achieve this goal (10 percent). So, let’s get excited about the super champions but remember that their success is also built on a mass practice of young people who will be discarded because teams prefer to choose following another philosophy.

Ready for failure?

Anna Jordana, Yago Ramis, Jose L. Chamorro, Joan Pons, Marta Borrueco, Koen De Brandt, Miquel Torregrossa (2022). Ready for Failure? Irrational Beliefs, Perfectionism and Mental Health in Male Soccer Academy Players, Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy.

Since Junior-to-Senior Transition (JST) is only considered successful when soccer players become professionals, many junior athletes must cope with failure, and their sporting careers and mental health may be at risk. Therefore, the objectives of this study are to (a) identify different career expectancies of male soccer academy players, and (b) describe irrational beliefs, perfectionism and mental health levels associated with different career expectancies, identifying risk factors in the JST. A total of 515 male soccer players between 14 and 19 years old (M = 16.7; SD = 1.6) who played in Spanish professional youth academies during the 2020–2021 season, answered questionnaires on sports career model, beliefs, perfectionism and mental health (i.e., iPBI, MPS-2 and GHQ-12). The results suggest that the number of juniors who aspire to be professionals (57%) far exceeds the number of players who become professionals (10%; Dugdale in Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports 31:73–84, 2021). Also, results show that this population presents high levels of demandingness (M = 5.5), low frustration tolerance (M = 5.2), self-organization (M = 5.2) and social functioning (M = 5.5), and low scores on depreciation (M = 2.6) and loss of confidence and self-esteem (M = 2.4). In a more detailed way, the results are compared according to expectancies. These academies are usually environments where success and failure are antagonistic concepts, and where perfectionism and irrational beliefs are normalized and integrated among all members of this context. However, the possible maladaptive effects put their mental health at risk. With the aim of rationalizing the concepts of success and failure and protecting their mental health, especially those who will not become professionals, this study proposes a new route based on the REBT philosophy and ARRC technique.

The relation among performance, skills and mistakes

In many cultures, there are sayings that remind us how important it is to learn how to react to negative situations and mistakes. It is said, for example, “When a door closes, a door opens,” while Americans like to repeat, “It doesn’t matter how many times you fall, but how quickly you get back up,” and the Japanese state, “Fall seven times, get up eighth.” These statements highlight that in order to succeed, one must develop a full awareness of how frequent it is to make mistakes and how equally relevant it is to react constructively.

There are no shortcuts, for mistakes cannot be eliminated; one must necessarily make mistakes, as during an obstacle course in which at every moment one is aware that it is possible to make mistakes, to slow down, to make a great effort to overcome an obstacle even if one is well prepared and knows the course.

Then if this is the way to go, it is necessary to prevent mistakes from becoming alibis used to confirm to oneself the impossibility of overcoming one’s current limits, with the effect of leading to a reduction in commitment, since “There is nothing to do anyway,” or “Yes, there would be a lot to do, but I am not talented enough,” or even “I am an unlucky guy, when something can go wrong, it will happen to me for sure.” It is therefore necessary to build, through daily activity, a work culture that considers error as an integral part of the improvement process.

One way of accepting errors is to implement certain behaviors that allow one to move from a hitherto unsatisfactory performance to an effective one. These simple actions involve:

  1. After a mistake take a deep breath and immediately imagine what to do in the next moment.
  2. When one is too preoccupied with the competition to begin, one should imagine a positive past performance and let oneself feel the sensations while doing this exercise.
  3. During the warm-up one has to find the feeling with the sporting implement or medium one is using, (ball, racket, weapon, boat, ski, bicycle) one has to feel that that object is really ours and part of us.
  4. During the warm-up, one must also feel that the body is preparing for the competition and take pleasure in those sensations that say we are preparing well.
  5. One has to mentally imagine, if it is running to feel that the legs are turning as I expect them to or if I feel them too stiff insist on stretches so as to release unnecessary muscle tension. In relation to other sports we need to identify which exercises best highlight whether we are ready, and dedicate ourselves to feeling the right sensations for us before the start of the race.

These are just a few concrete examples of what an athlete can do to learn how to guide himself to put himself in the optimal mental condition before and during competition. Following these pointers, everyone can build his or her own path of pre-race physical, technical, and mental preparation.

Change is the constancy of life

Happy holidays

Coaching the young emotion

Simeone, manager of Atletico Madrid, said that “you can win by losing if you give it your all.” It is a key concept in the development of an athlete and should be taught from the very first day a boy or girl enters a playing field. On the contrary, we see young people who as soon as they make a mistake become angry with themselves or depressed. We know that this happens because of the conjunction of different reasons:

parents often do not recognize the value of effort and think that it only matters to win, so they get angry at their children for their mistakes and would like to take the place of the coach to give them technical guidance,
coaches are more focused on teaching technique and do not emotionally coach athletes,
young people themselves are unable to express their emotions constructively and lack self-control.
And so we see young tennis players slamming their rackets to the ground after a mistake alternating between angry and depressed moods against themselves or in other sports made one mistake almost quickly follows others, because frustration due to the first mistake dominates in athletes. Changing this way of experiencing defeats and mistakes requires parents and coaches who are more aware that their role includes teaching self-control, working with their children and athletes to change these destructive behaviors.

One certainly does not have to impose our adult solutions to their problems. We need to listen empathetically and not to judge, so that young people feel supported and respected in their states of mind. Only after this stage should we start talking about what could be done differently, giving time for the young people to express their ideas and for us to stimulate their awareness in regard to how they act and identify possible solutions. Acting in this way takes time, and it is often for this reason that adults do not follow this path.

We need to be aware, however, that if we often refrain from intervening, young people will begin to think that their reactions do not interest their parents and coaches, and worse, they will continue to behave negatively toward themselves. If we want our young people to develop the ability to deal effectively and satisfactorily with their daily stresses, we must spend time teaching them how to behave, feel and think in those moments.

The gaze of the player before the penalty

During the recently concluded World Cup, many penalties were missed, and many wondered how this was possible. An essential aspect of this precision task concerns the orientation of the kicker’s gaze in those moments, since it is likely that where he fixes his gaze, there his attention is directed. This is often what does not happen because excessive psychological tension prevents the kicker from performing this simple action. Where does a soccer player look as he is about to execute a penalty kick? Eduardo Galeano illustrated this in a literary and elegant way when talking about a famous penalty kick taken by Meazza:

“It happened in the 1938 World Cup. In the semifinals, Italy and Brazil were playing out their destiny, do or die.
Italian striker Piola suddenly collapsed, as if electrocuted by a gunshot, and with his one finger still alive pointed at Brazilian defender Domingos de Guia. The Swiss referee believed him, blew the whistle: penalty. As the Brazilians threw shouts to the sky and Piola stood up shaking off the dust, Giuseppe Meazza placed the ball on the spot of execution.
Meazza was the beauty of the team. An elegant, lovelorn little guy, elegant penalty taker, he raised his head inviting the goalkeeper like the matador with the bull in the final assault. And his feet, flexible and skillful as hands, never missed. But Walter, the Brazilian goalkeeper, was good at saving penalties and had confidence in himself.
Meazza took a run-up, and at the precise moment when he was about to settle the shot, his pants fell down. The audience was stunned, and the referee almost swallowed his whistle. But Meazza, without stopping, grabbed his pants with one hand and vanquished the goalkeeper, disarmed by so much laughter.
This was the goal that launched Italy to the championship final.”

However, that the penalty also represents a difficulty always ready to present itself is confirmed by an analysis of the percentages of penalties taken by the Italian national team throughout its history. In fact, there have been 86 penalties executed by the Azzurri in all competitions, of which 67 are those scored and 19 those missed. Therefore, those missed represent 22 percent of those executed.

The metaphor of the matador looking at the bull stands to indicate that the penalty taker looks straight ahead at a specific point, without lowering his eyes.

The coach main task

I often wonder why we continue to talk about sports and sports performance when we live in a time when uncertainty dominates. Moreover, sport and soccer itself are not immune from serious problems involving athletes and their organizations, from doping to match-fixing, from false accounting to scams related to the acquisition of world-class sporting events. If we stop at just these aspects of our society, we would obviously not have to deal with sports, but we probably would not have to deal with anything if we thought that “everyone is a thief.”

Then there are the young people with their expectations and motivation to succeed in achieving their dreams, and that is what drives me to talk about sports. We cannot leave them alone in finding their way, we certainly cannot leave them prey to the many who want to advise them only to satisfy their narcissism. Instead, we must convey to them:

  • awareness in their own qualities and the need for continuous improvement
  • the ability to accept mistakes and defeats, living them as the only experiences that enable improvement
  • the pleasure of striving to achieve their dreams
  • the belief that the power of the athlete is exercised 100×100 in delivering the best performance of which one is capable, not in winning
  • the belief that the emotional experiences they experience in training and competition are a way for them to learn to manage themselves during the most intense and stressful times in their lives
  • the ability to rejoice and be proud of themselves
  • the ability to respect opponents and competition judges
  • the ability to accept difficulties as an essential and present part of every performance even when one is really well prepared to compete

For these reasons, teaching young people who want to become good at what they do is a very challenging and different experience from working together with adult athletes or those who have already achieved international visibility. These are young adolescents, boys and girls, who are committed to finding out if they have the qualities to stand out in sports and to turn their passion into a high-level sports career.

In individual sports, by high level, we must mean an athlete capable of competing competitively at the international level. In team sports, we refer to playing at least at the level of the top two national championships (where space to play is too often occupied by foreign players).

We know that once established, these long-term goals, however, must be set aside because we must focus on what we need to do to improve and pursue this goal on a daily basis. We also know that it is not easy to acquire this mindset because of the mistakes that are made all the time. They test the personal beliefs that must sustain the athlete in reacting immediately to a single mistake as well as an unsatisfactory race performance.

Teaching young people to acquire this open mindset toward mistakes, interpreting them as a unique opportunity, should be the goal of every coach. We need to teach what Aristotle stated and that is:

“We are what we constantly do. Excellence therefore is not an act but a habit.”

In fact, sports is full of stories of young people who were spoiled by their talent (physical and technical) because they thought that this gift was enough to succeed and when life then confronted them with the decisive tests they were not able to cope. Because we are what we do on a daily basis, study, work and for athletes training. We must be aware that excellence comes from the habit of training with dedication and intensity. Those who do not understand that this is the way to go on a daily basis believe they are making up for it with their natural talent; unfortunately, it is only an illusion that will be demolished at the first rough patches. As counter-evidence of the importance of this mental approach, one can quote what Roger Federer said at the age of 38:

“In order to face younger players, I had to reinvent my play; tennis is constantly evolving.”