Young and naive: How the rigors of experience can stunt wunderkinds

ISI Photos-Robin Alam

"Pressure" is always the buzzword surrounding teen sensations, but that hardly tells the whole story, Bobby Warshaw writes.

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I’ve seen plenty of academy players light up training on their first day with the first team. You step on the field against them in a 5-v-5 game and think you’re about to have an easy day and the next thing you know, you’re walking off the field with your tail between your legs. You think this kid could sign today and start tomorrow.

A year later, though, he’s the worst player on the field. He doesn’t look anything like you’d expect him to look. A year after being a professional he’s worse than the day he signed.

It’s the infuriating nature of young players. Their biggest advantage is also their most worrisome trait."

We have a natural inclination to get excited about young players. We see how good they are now and extrapolate out to how good they will be in five or 10 years. Our eyes get huge. A player only gets better as he gets older, right?

Well, not always.

There are advantages that come with youth which disappear as a player gets older.

As U.S. fans put all of their men’s soccer hopes on the shoulders of 17-year-old Christian Pulisic and envision the all-time-great potential of 18-year-old women’s breakout Mallory Pugh, we need to think about the full arc of their careers. We need to ensure they continue to grow instead of getting caught up in what they can do now at such as young age. There are real, logical issues at stake which we cannot ignore.

Sometimes it means a young player outperforms his or her actual long-term ability. Other times he or she gets dragged back to the mean by the natural habitat of the professional world. It isn’t random or unlucky; it isn’t chalked up to the cliche idea of “pressure.” It’s logical and, ideally, avoidable.

When a player is young, he just plays. No duh, right? But it’s a huge advantage to go out on the field and not think too much. A kid is too caught up in the moment to worry or stress or overthink. He doesn’t know any better. If he makes a bad pass, he’s never made two bad passes before with his youth team, so there’s no chance he will make another one; he just goes for it. When we talk about the concept of “getting in the zone,” it’s as simple as just focusing on the game and not worrying about auxiliary factors. He lets his body take over without his mind getting in the way.

Sometimes, of course, young players go the other way and crap the bed. Sometimes the deer-in-headlights factor can be a problem and he or she isn’t equipped to play at the higher level. For some, though, the ignorance is a huge advantage.

Young players play without fear. They just go for it. They still think they can do anything.

From a tactical perspective, as well, teenagers have an advantage; we hold younger players to a lower standard. Coaches and teammates don’t expect teenagers to understand the angles defensively or the proper aggression to close down. As a result, young players can often save their energy to attack and when they are on the ball. We always notice what we see more than what we don’t see. The parts that younger players sacrifice we miss, but the parts where they can excel, we see with jaws dropping.

Over time, however, that freedom gets taken away. A player getting his first professional or international appearance doesn’t always have to tuck in on defense, but a person getting his fifteenth appearance does. As a player gets older, he needs to reallocate his focus and energy. If he doesn’t learn to do it properly it can take away from his game.

The demands of being a full-time professional can beat a player down. There will be a day in training that he tries to dribble past a player and he loses the ball. The other team will counter and his team will get scored on. The 10-year veteran in goal will get the ball out of his net and turn around and yell at the 17-year-old kid that he needs to take better care of the ball. The kid might look at him in shock and turn around and the next time he gets it he will make a simple back-pass to the outside back.

When you’re 17, you haven’t been benched or left off the team or heartbroken. When you’re confidence gets shaken, it’s always unclear whether it will come back, if at all. Or if it does, whether it will come back all the way. Once you know that if you don’t beat this guy off the dribble your team might give up a goal and lose, you might not ever dribble at the defender with the same gusto again. Sometimes it’s easier to be 17 and not know any better.

Physical demands increase as a player trades hits with those 10 years his senior. Complacency can set in for those players who think they made it. The term, ‘sophomore slump’ exists for a reason.

There’s a benefit to being naive. Older players understand what’s on the line. They get that their paycheck and their livelihood and their kid’s college tuition are on the line. They understand how much it matters to fans and that they might not get another shot. More than anything, they understand how to keep their job, how to play safe, how to do enough. If you’ve ever painted or written because you love to paint or write, then tried to make it your livelihood, you’ll understand the difference in perspective. You no longer paint or write with the same glow and vibrance. Your art might not be better or worse, but it’s different. Younger players, though, are just playing a game -- the same game they’ve played their whole lives.

It’s the infuriating nature of young players. Their biggest advantage is also their most worrisome trait. Sometimes naivety can help a player, but sometimes you want -- no, you need -- players that understand what’s on the line. You need seasoned soldiers. As a manager or owner or fan, don’t you want someone on the field that cares as much as you do?

I once had a veteran MLS coach say to me, “Do you know what experience really means? It just means that I know what I’ll get from the player every day.”

Young studs can still turn out to be excellent long-term pros, but it’s not a perfect progression. There are systematic advantages to being young. As fans and coaches and an American soccer system, we can’t pretend like it’s theoretical concepts of “pressure” and “expectations” that hurt our future stars. Rather, let’s acknowledge and face the real challenges head-on.

It certainly helps to have the talent early on, but becoming a successful five-year pro is a different beast than looking good right away.

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