Perfection is a widely used but sometimes misguided concept in sport. We are told at an early age that practice makes perfect, along with experiencing long sessions drilling for a skill to be performed a certain way. “We’re not leaving here until it is perfect” is a phrase most of us have heard from our coaches throughout the years. It has become a goal in practice and a target for games. However, in the modern age of coaching, is search for perfection adversely affecting our players and teams performances respectively? Let’s look closer at this phenomenon of perfection from a coaches, players, and training aspect and see if the pursuit of it is doing more harm than good.
The search or perfection ultimately begins with the coach. The player will always be a product of their environment and the coach’s role in influencing that environment is critical. Of course, as coaches, we all want to establish high standards in everything we do. There is nothing wrong with that and without those principles, discipline and consequently performance will suffer. However, there is a huge difference between demanding high standards and demanding perfection: quite simply one is attainable and the other is not. The coach who demands perfection will usually be disappointed. As a result, practices will never be good enough, losses will be disastrous, and player’s performance levels will fluctuate with the mood of the coach.
There is a traditional school of thought that practice sessions are a time when perfection should be realized. I would certainly agree that it is attainable to achieve the perfect practice session. However, in my opinion, if the coach believes perfection has been achieved in training there are two issues that immediately arise. The first is that the session is too easy and repetitive. Passing exercises that are performed every day should have a high success rate for players of elite ability. In the same way, conditioned games or exercises that are performed without speed and tempo will not challenge players and should see high levels attained. The second issue with perfection at practice is that you have not made it game related. When you match up against teams of similar ability, games tend to take a similar path. There are times when you are in the ascendency, when passing is sharp, chances are created, and hopefully goals are scored. But there are also times when you find yourself under pressure and momentum can swing the other way. If your players are in an environment that does not expose them to the latter, they will struggle to deal with it. Likewise, if your team is conditioned to adapt and deal with adverse conditions, they can deal with it and turn momentum your way a lot quicker. Therefore, practice should not be perfect. It should be challenging, tough, but at the same time safe and enjoyable, where your players experience failure and learn how to deal with it when it occurs in a game.
The quest for perfection can also have a number of negative effects on our players. If we set the bar for perfection individually, meaning we want a player in the top range in shooting, passing, heading, fitness, speed, power, tactical awareness, and mental qualities needed, we are attempting to create the impossible. Granted, at a young age, competency in the technical areas of the game is vital for development. As the player reaches the elite level, however, we have to accept the weaknesses of certain players. The perfect performance is about as rare as the perfect player. Setting perfection as a goal means that as soon as a mistake is made, the player has failed. Now what? One mistake will lead to another, and another, and before you know it, that player has reached the point of no return. The ability to deal with failure and setbacks develops courage. How can we expect our players to take risks in the game, if they know they will be criticized? We will not produce creative players because an essential part of creativity is not being able to fail. Coaching should not block that and instead should be about releasing energy, releasing freedom, and releasing talent.
Perfection is not a condition associated with soccer players or human beings. It is a romantic vision that will always be out of reach. So instead of aiming to be perfect, let’s aim to be effective. We can still demand high standards, but not at the expense of unattainable goals and blocks on performance. Practice sessions should be challenging but game related. Just because the players struggle with an exercise, does not mean they are not giving their best effort or developing. Soccer is an imperfect game and in order to prepare our players for it, we need to look at how we recover from a loss of focus, or a period of uncertainty in the game. The ultimate goal of a coach is to remove all barriers and negative forces, in order to enable total concentration of the game plan. If perfection becomes a barrier as it is unrealistic and out of reach, then it should be removed from the training environment and the coach’s vocabulary. Maybe then we will see more risks taken from our players, more creativity in our sessions, more enjoyment in everyone’s faces, and most importantly, better performances on the field. For me, that is the perfect solution.