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The Devil Inside

by Peter Prickett - Follow Peter

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Snap and snarl.

Bite and bile.

Fire and fury.

Do we encourage these or discourage them?

How do we handle the young player who comes off the pitch kicking the water bottles? The child who cries every time they lose the training game? The boy who scream at his team mates when the pass is not good enough?

Most coaches, myself included, look to calm them down. We want a certain model of behaviour, one that doesn’t express frustration with venom and spite. The behaviour that we encourage is calm, almost placid. If we are not careful, they might become timid. Tame. Tentative.

Are these really the players we want?

Where does the fiery response come from? For the largest majority it will be because they want to win. They desperately, desperately want to win and they do not take losing well. There should be a distinction made between the desire to win and the desire not to lose, as one is defensive and protectionist while the other is assertive and exciting. People of any age do not get angry and upset when they do not care. Generally they become upset because they care deeply and intensely. We don’t really waste such vast amounts of energy on things with no meaning to us.

The desire to win is vital. It is expressed in different ways. For some it is a steely determination. For some it is ranting and raving. For others it is cheating.

There is a line but that line tends to be governed more by culture than anything else. For the English the greatest example in modern football is diving. Footballers who are diving are doing so because they want to win the game, often by gaining an opportunity to strike at goal. In other countries the practice is not debated with as much frenzy. The culture is different.

Then there is 1986. Diego Maradona. In England Maradona is reviled for blatant cheating. Using his hand to score a vital goal in a World Cup quarter final. Of course the Argentinians feel differently. He was willing to do what it takes. There are many opinions about Diego Maradona the person but one thing is for sure, he cares with great intensity about winning games of football.

Years later Luis Suarez would use his hand to prevent Ghana from scoring a winning goal at a World Cup. He was sent off. Ghana missed the penalty. Uruguay went through. Suarez celebrated with vigour. The English were disgusted, but once, like Maradona, Suarez had done whatever was needed to get through.

The professional game is win at all costs. Get that result. Any way possible. For children it is slightly different, but not from their point of view. From their perspective a win is a win is a win. They don’t care about processes, development and philosophy. They just want to score more goals than the opposition. Similarly they are not aware of the shortcuts that can win youth games. The kids don’t want to stick the two biggest fastest boys at the front and back. As they grow older they do become more aware of these things but they still want to get that victory.

It is our responsibility as knowledgeable adults to help them in a way that avoids short cuts and provides them with the skill set that they will require when they are adults. It is not our responsibility to remove their competitive streak. Everyone wants their child to be a well mannered human being but it is possible to be one yet have something of the devil once on the field. The Australians talk about white line fever, a complete change in personality once on the pitch. The passion takes over.

Think of the desire of many great players. Wayne Rooney, Ian Wright, Steven Gerrard, Eric Cantona and Zinedine Zidane, these iconic figures played on the very edge. Some were easier to tip over than others. One or two are difficult to tip over but once they go it is incendiary. Alexis Sanchez, Cristiano Ronaldo, Alan Shearer and Paulo Di Canio. The list of players who have shown their emotion goes on. Did this desire help or hinder their development?

Which child is more likely to push on through and reach the professional ranks?

The one fair weather player or the one who revels in every single moment?

The angel or the devil?

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