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Are You Proactive or Reactive?

There’s a great poem by Portia Nelson titled, There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk that I use frequently with my Success high school students and my soccer players. In a very visual way, it sums up where so many find themselves every day…in a deep hole that is seemingly unavoidable. The reason they feel this way is because they are reactionary. Let me explain through the use of this wonderful poem.

Chapter 1

“I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.”

Chapter 2

“I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes me a long time to get out.”

Chapter 3

“I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in. It’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault. I get out immediately.”

Chapter 4

“walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.”

Chapter 5

“I walk down another street.”

I think we all can relate to being surprised by our circumstances in life. We often don’t see the obstacles coming and we find ourselves in a deep hole…that can happen to any of us. The key to dealing with circumstances like this is to first recognize the pattern or habit and then begin to take responsibility. For my students they often complain about a teacher who they feel is not doing a good job of teaching. They are failing the class (their hole) but it’s not their fault. Their F is the teacher’s fault. I tell them they are still in Chapter 1 or 2.

Some will admit that their F is their own fault but feel like there is nothing they can do. They are reactionary. They’ll walk down the same sidewalk, and fall into the same hole, every day and they are helpless. This is where I encourage them to become proactive. What can you do differently to learn the material? Can you get a tutor, can you ask for help after school, can you review the lessons online on Khan Academy? Can you talk to your counselor? These are all proactive things they can do to get to the other side of the sidewalk or to a different street.

I hear similar stories in sports. The coach doesn’t like me. She’s unfair and only plays her favorites. I don’t know why I don’t play more. Great players take ownership of their situations and they make a plan to improve. They talk to their coach and find out what specifically they need to work on to improve. They self-reflect after every practice to see what they did well and where they need to improve. They accept responsibility for their own actions, attitude and behaviors and they set goals and practice with purpose.

Bottom line…we all find ourselves in the hole in the sidewalk occasionally, what we do next has tremendous influence on where we will be in a day, a week a month or next year.


Mental Practice Builds Physical Skills

In the book titled, “The Brain That Changes Itself” author Norman Doidge, MD reports on an imagination experiment performed by Alvaro Pascual-Leone, chief of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, part of Harvard Medical School. “Pascual-Leone taught two groups of people, who had never studied piano, a sequence of notes, showing them which fingers to move and letting them hear the notes as they were played. Then members of one group, the ‘mental practice’ group, sat in front of an electric piano keyboard, two hours a day, for five days, and imagined both playing the sequence and hearing it played. A second ‘physical practice’ group actually played the music two hours a day for five days. Both groups had their brains mapped before the experiment, each day during it, and afterward. Then both groups were asked to play the sequence, and a computer measured the accuracy of their performance.”

“Pascual-Lenone found that both groups learned to play the sequence and showed similar brain map changes. Remarkably mental practice alone produced the same physical changes in the motor system as actually playing the piece. Clearly mental practice is an effective way to prepare for learning a physical skill with minimal physical practice.”

What does this evidence mean to a young, developing soccer player? I see a couple of very important ways this impacts practice and development.

First, it clearly points to the importance of visualizing yourself performing a new skill. Take juggling for example, just imagining that you’re juggling, can improve your juggling skills.

Second, with our busy lives and trying to determine the right amount of actual practice time, this is a great way to spend 15 minutes improving a skill without having to spend 2 hours round trip for a practice.

Third, during injury or times of physical rest, this is a great way to stay sharp and even improve.

Finally, this is also a great way to develop a mental skill in the process – the skill of deliberate focus.


Early Sampling/Diversification vs Early Specialization

There is currently a debate in youth sports about which is the most effective path to developing elite talent in sports. Proponents of the early sampling/diversification pathway argue that young children should play many sports before they decide later to specialize in any one sport, usually around the age of thirteen. One key to the early sampling argument is the opportunity for young players to spend lots of time in ‘deliberate play’ which is describe by Jean Cote, the psychologist that coined the phrase as, “the freedom to experiment with different movements and tactics and the opportunity to learn to innovate, improvise and respond strategically (Cote 1999).” Deliberate play is used as a term to distinguish unstructured activities such as street soccer from those that are more structured or organized by adults. Some researchers feel that this free play helps increase motivation and passion for the game and that many of the cognitive skills that young people learn through a variety of sports are transferable between sports.

The opposing view is that the most effective way to develop the technical skills necessary to make it to the highest levels of sport is to specialize in one sport at an early age. According to researchers, “the early specialization pathway is typified by four parameters: early involvement is sport; early involvement in a single sport (around the age of 5 or 6), high amounts of focused, high intensity practice and early competitive  involvement in a sport (Baker et al., 2009).”  The early specialization method shifts time away from play activities towards ‘deliberate practice’ in one sport. According to the theory of deliberate practice (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer, 1993) expertise is not only developed through experience but via a process of highly relevant, structured practice activities, engaged in by performers for the primary purpose of improving performance. According to Ericsson and his colleagues, deliberate practice is further characterized by practicing skills in a way that require focused attention and full effort, immediate feedback and opportunity for repetition. Because of the repetition and high levels of focus and effort, many experts feel that starting this kind of intense practice at an early age will lead to burn out.

In a thesis submitted in October of 2012, researcher David Hendry tested the effects of domain specific activities (play and practice), as well as sporting diversity during the sampling years, on the development of motivation, passion and skill ratings. Here is his conclusion: “The findings from the first part of this study are vital to the advancement of sports expertise theory and practical applications of talent development models. Recent literature, derived from the DMSP has painted early specialized, formal practices as the villain of athletic development. While studies of elite gymnastics and ice-skating have reported maladaptive outcomes from early specialization such as increased likelihood of burnout, and decreased motivation (Baker, et. all 2007), the results from this study show that this is not necessarily the case in all sports, particularly when expert performance is achieved at a later age or in team-based environments. As such any recommendations away from early specialized practice towards greater sporting diversity and more time in deliberate play type activities may be ill advised, especially when you consider the series of studies advocating early specializations as a prerequisite of reaching expert performance in many sports including soccer (Helsen, et al., 1998, Ford & Williams, 2012).

It’s important to keep in mind that although deliberate practice is necessary to develop elite level skill, Brazilian youth spend great amounts of time playing “street soccer” and Futsal. Zinedine Zadane, was quoted as saying, “Everything I know about football, I learned in the street” ( I believe that one of the problems we have developing truly great players in the U.S. is that there are relatively few places for kids to go out and play pick up soccer. In big cities across America, urban youth learn to play basketball in the playgrounds and we produce the worlds’ greatest players.  If we really want to develop the kind of talent that can compete with Brazil, Argentina and Spain then we need to look at soccer at the grass roots level and start creating more places for kids to go play soccer on their own and then begin to nourish that developing talent through deliberate practice.


Baker, J., Cobley, S., Fraser-Thomas, J. (2009), What do we know about early sport specialization? Not much! High Ability Studies, 20, 77-89.

Cote, J. Baker, J., & Abernathy, B. (2007) Play and practice in the development of sport expertise. Handbook of Sport Psychology., (pp. 184-202) John Wiley & Sons.

Cote, J. (1999). The influence of the family in the development of talent in sports. Sport Psychologist, 13, 395-417.

Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R.T., Tesch-Romer, C. (1993) The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100, 363-406.

Ford, P.R. & Williams, A.M. (2012). The developmental activities engaged in by elite youth soccer players who progressed to  professional status compared to those who did not. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13, 349-352.

Helsen, W.F., Starkes, J.L., Hodges, N.J. (1998). Team sport and the theory of deliberate practice. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 20, 12-34.

Hendry, D. T. (2012). The role of developmental activities on self determined motivation, passion and skill in youth soccer players.


Our brains can be divided into the lower brain and the upper brain. Each area of the brain has a different purpose. According to author Daniel Goleman, each part of the brain has very different functions.

The bottom-up brain is:

  • Faster in brain time operating in milliseconds,
  • Involuntary and automatic: always on,
  • Intuitive, operating through networks in association,
  • Impulsive, driven by emotions,
  • Executor of our habitual routines and guide for our actions,
  • Manger for our mental models of the world.

By contrast, the top-down mind is:

  • Slower,
  • Voluntary,
  • Effortful,
  • The seat of self-control, which can (sometimes) overpower automatic routines and mute emotionally driven impulses,
  • Able to learn new models, make plans, and take charge of our automatic repertoire to an extent

“In the mind’s arena, willpower represents a wrestling match between top and bottom systems (of the mind). Willpower keeps us focused on our goals despite the tug of our impulses, passions, habits, and cravings. This cognitive control represents ‘cool’ mental systems that make an effort to pursue our goals in the face of our ‘hot’ emotional reactions – quick, impulsive, and automatic. (Goleman, 2013)”

Having strong willpower is important to displaying a lot of determination. All of us have this internal battle going on in our brains – the struggle between doing what we want to do and what we know we should do. The better we understand this process and develop the top-down, cognitive (mental) strategies the more successful we’ll be at reaching our goals.


Goleman, D. (2013). Focus: The Hidden Driver of   Excellence. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.



Wasted Practice?

Why is it that some players seem to get more from practice than others? If players are exposed to the same coaching methods, an equal amount of training time and the same number of matches, then you would think that all players would progress at the same rate yet that is not necessarily the case.

A group of researchers from the Center of Human Movement Sciences, University of Groningen set out to study 256 youth male soccer players who were selected in the 2007/08 season for youth academy teams of Dutch professional clubs (top 1% of players of their age group) with an average age of 14.2 years old. Of this larger group a small number were selected to represent the country (national team). The purpose of the study was to assess the relationship between self-regulation of learning and performance level.

Deliberate practice is often associated with the amount (quantity) of practice that players accumulate over their careers. The research however, tends to point to the quality of practice, since the international level players and the players from the pool of 256 players practice statistically the same amount. The international level players reported that they reflect more upon their performance and have a high level of control over their performance development. All would agree that a high number of practice hours are necessary to develop the technical skills needed to play the game at the highest level. What the research is suggesting is that elite players get more out of their practice time. (Toering 2012)

According to a self-regulated learning model based on self-regulated learning theory developed by B.J. Zimmerman, (2006) youth soccer players who self-regulate their learning well:

  • Plan how they want to improve before initiating actions,
  • Self-monitor their actions relative to their goal,
  • Evaluate the process employed and the outcome achieved after task execution,
  • Reflect upon the entire process during cycles of planning, self-monitoring and evaluation.

Question – Are you getting as much out of your practices sessions as you can? If not, then your wasting practice time and the potential to get better.  Set your focus on development and reflect on how well you’re doing.  Plan, Self-Monitor, Evaluate and Reflect upon the whole process.


One of the qualities that separates elite athletes from non-elite or novices athletes is the ability to reflect on performance and alter their learning strategies or behaviors. A study done by researchers at the University of Groningen (Netherlands) on soccer players in elite soccer academy programs found that the players that made it to the highest professional levels were better able to reflect and self-regulate their learning. This is important because it shows that development is much more than just technical and physical development; it’s also mental development. So how can you as an athlete, self-regulate your learning environment? First you set goals and select strategies that will help you reach your goals. Once you implement those strategies and start to work you then you have to pause to ask yourself:

  • How am I doing?
  • What’s working well?
  • What do I need to improve upon?
  • What’s the best way (most effective) to practice this skill?
  • Do I need to put in more effort, or choose a new strategy?

The ability to work hard with focus, effort and determination on the gap between the desired performance (goal) and the current performance is one of the key factors that eventually separates the very best from the very good.


J Sports Sci. 2010 Jun;28(8):901-8. doi: 10.1080/02640411003797157.

Differences in self-regulatory skills among talented athletes: the significance of competitive level and type of sport. Jonker L, Elferink-Gemser MT, Visscher C.

Strengthening Goal Commitment

We’ve all heard of the power of positive thinking. Quotes such as, “If you can dream it, you can achieve it,” seem to suggest that just having positive thoughts are all you need to accomplish your goals. Dreaming of achieving your goals is an important step that can lead to increased motivation for goal attainment. Researcher, Angela Duckworth Ph.D.  has found however, that it is more beneficial to also consider the challenges that you’re going to face while trying to accomplish your goal. This strategy, known as Mental Contrasting, is the practice of thinking about your goal and the obstacles and challenges to achieving your goal at the same time.

Follow these steps to improve your chances of achieving your goal:

  • Think about a goal that’s related to soccer that can be achieved in the next few weeks or months and write it down.
  • What would be the best thing about achieving this goal? Write that down.
  • Now write down an obstacle to accomplishing your goal. What could get in the way and prevent you from achieving your goal?
  • When will you face this obstacle or challenge? What day(s) and time? Where will you be?
  • What can you do to overcome this obstacle? Write down a specific action or behavior that will help you get around this obstacle.

Now think of the obstacle or challenge you anticipate to encounter and the action or behavior you’ll use to overcome the challenge. Put them together in an if-then statement. For example:

If ___put the obstacle here­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­______, then _____put your action or behavior here___.

By thinking about the goal and the obstacle together AND having a behavioral strategy or action planned and ready to use, you are strengthening your goal commitment which helps you work with effort and determination to accomplish your goal.

Juggling Improves Mental Skills

Learning to juggle is an important skill for young, developing soccer players. In addition to improving first touch and ball control, juggling also helps players develop important mental skills such as focus, concentration, effort, determination, goal setting, patience and self-control. In fact, you really can’t learn to juggle well without learning and developing each of these mental skills. For that reason, juggling is an excellent dual-purpose activity. While you are developing your physical skills you are also developing mental skills that will help you in every phase of soccer (and life).

Actually, juggling also teaches one other important skill – practice. Learning to practice is a skill. When you practice daily, you develop the habit of practicing and research shows that even short daily practice helps you learn the skill quicker. According Daniel Coyle, author of The Little Book of Talent, “With deep practice, small daily practice ‘snacks’ are more effective than once-a-week practice binges. The reason has to do with the way our brains grow – incrementally, a little each day, even when we sleep. Daily practice, even for five minutes, nourishes this process, while more occasional practice forces your brain to play catch-up.” You’re much better off practicing a skill like juggling 5-10 minutes per day than you are to go out and practice one time a week for an hour. The key to maximizing the benefits of daily practice is to make sure you practice with complete concentration and effort (deep practice). If you can perform the skill 9 -10 times out of 10, then it’s too easy and you need to make the activity more challenging. For juggling do left foot only or alternate feet. Make sure it’s something that forces you to concentrate and work hard!

Progress, Motivation and Goals

As a runner I was excited to download the new Nike+ Running app on my iPhone last April. It has GPS to track my running course and how many miles I run. I can also write a short note about how I felt while running and it breaks my run down into individual mile splits. When I finish running and hit the done button a famous Nike athlete such as Tim Tebow offers some type of congratulations or encouragement. It may be as simple as, “Way to go, you ran three days in a row.” Or, “Congratulations you just set a new personal record for your 5K time.” I must admit, I look forward to the little voice of encouragement after each run. Nike is smart. They know that if I remain motivated to run, I’ll need new shoes soon and I’ll be back at the running store forking out $110 for a new pair of shoes.

There’s a valuable lesson to learn from this approach to motivation. I know in seconds how many times I’ve run, what my average time is per mile and how many total miles I’ve run; as well as how many total calories I’ve burned. By allowing me to chart my progress daily, I am becoming more motivated to stick to my large goal of running a full marathon this fall. I’ve run 92 times for a total of 465.6 miles. I’m now looking forward to two big milestones – my 100th run since mid-April and exceeding 500 miles in that period of time. By tracking this information I’m more motivated now to continue to pursue my goal. I’m also much more confident in my ability to ultimately reach my big goal. Researchers call this the “Progress Principal”. As we make progress towards our goals, we gain confidence and motivation and we’re more likely to continue to pursue our goals.

I highly recommend that you not only set goals and create a goal ladder, but that you also track your daily progress. You’ll be surprised how motivating it can be to see your hard work and progress on paper. For example, chart how long you practiced your juggling and how many juggles you got in a row. You may even want to track the number of touches with your right foot and your left foot. Try recording data from your workouts and you’ll learn that your hard work and effort is paying off by the progress you are making. You’ll also gain motivation which is necessary to continue to go out and train with focus and effort.

Creating a Goal Ladder

For many young soccer players the process of taking a large goal such as making the US National Team or playing professional soccer and breaking it down into smaller steps is very difficult. Create for yourself a series of short term goals that resemble steps on a ladder; each one getting you a little closer to the top which is your big goal. The best way to do this is to start at the top which is your big goal and work back down the ladder. Ask yourself what do you need to accomplish before you can become a pro or national team player? This is the step just below your big goal. For most players that will either be to play college soccer or be in a high level soccer academy. What do you need to accomplish before you can earn a college scholarship or attend an academy? You will need to be a standout player in high school or for your club team. What do you need to accomplish before you can be a standout player for your club or school team? You will need to develop skills in the four major areas of soccer development: Technical skills, Physical Skills, Mental Skills, and Tactical Skills. Between the ages of 14 and 18 players should be working hard in all four areas weekly. There really is no off season. Up to the age of 14 the primary focus should be on developing a growth mindset and the positive character strengths (Mental) necessary for building soccer skills with the ball (Technical), i.e., deliberate practice.

So, what do you need to work on today to improve and take a step towards your first short term (3 months) goal? Write it down and chart your progress. How was your focus? How much time did you spend working to accomplish your goal? What is distracting you and taking you away from working on your short term goal? Ask yourself these questions every day and give yourself a progress report once per week. How am I doing? What’s going well? What do I need to do differently? According to research done by professors at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands, research reveals that “reflection” distinguishes between athletes at the highest levels of excellence. Jonker, L., Elferink-Gemser M.T., & Visscher, C. (2010). Journal of Sports Science June 28 (8) 901-908.

Top level athletes are constantly asking themselves these types of questions and making small adjusts daily or weekly to make sure they stay on track to reach their short term and long term goals.