The Non-Linear Development of a High Performer

Check out this breakaway from Skye's conversation with Seattle Sounders Academy Director Steve Cooke from our High Performance Week. We hope you enjoy!


Steve Cooke

If anyone knows about High Performance Pathways, it's Steve Cooke. With over 30 years of coaching and consultancy in football, Steve has taken up a range of roles in various soccer clubs across the US and England. Starting as Academy Assistant Manager at former Premier League side Sheffield Wednesday in the UK, Steve has since been Technical Director and Assistant Manager at MLS side Colorado Rapids, Head Coach of OKC Energy FC, Director of Soccer at Phoenix Rising FC, and is currently Academy Director of Seattle Sounders.


Is there anything that you know for sure after working with so many players at different levels, whether it be within the youth game or professionally? When it comes to kids that have dreams of being a high performance player, as far as their pathway is concerned, is there anything that's clear about these high performance players and theirs pathways?

I think the one sure thing is that there is no sure pathway that gets you there. Every player is different. Every experience is different. Actually the last couple of weeks, I did this for our club and presented some things to people here about players I'd worked with in the past. And it hit me as I was doing the work, and looking at photographs and putting down little bios of players, is that they all came from these various backgrounds. Some kids came from socioeconomic backgrounds that were relatively disadvantaged, and some kids, their families were millionaires. And they all came from these different experiences. Some of the players were very, very good young players. And then some of them kind of took their time. Went maybe down the college road, and came back to now be international players through the college road.

And so all of these players, what really hit me as I was doing this a couple of weeks ago now, was how oftentimes in coaching, I think, and parenting, I think as well for that matter, we think that there is this one linear way, and we're going to join a club and they get better. And then they join the academy. And before you know it they're playing for the reserves. And then in the first team, before I go on to be a superstar in the world cup. And it just isn't that. That does happen, but it doesn't happen in that linear fashion always. And I think the very, very gifted, the very, very few are maybe they're in the first team at 16 or 17 and they continue that progression and end up playing internationally and for their countries.

But so many more, have more of a up and down pathway. And I think they hit little challenges and stumbling blocks along the way. And they get over them, and they work hard and they keep persevering through. And again, the one sure thing is that there isn't a definite way. What I do think is whatever the way is for you as a player, and your child as a parent, I think you have to make the very, very best of that opportunity. And whatever it is, wherever you are at the time, perseverance, effort, hard work, keeping going no matter what. And then letting your abilities shine through.

And I think our job as coaches and as parents is to really try to maximize players' abilities and children's abilities. Really try to help them navigate through. And I think as long as we are helping young players maximize whatever level of ability or potential they might have, I think we're doing a great job.

Yeah. That's so hard to see your children struggle. If we know that it's not linear, it's not going to be this simple. There's going to be injuries. There's going to be teams you don't make. There's going to be situations that are challenging that our children face. And how we choose to support them really matters. In all of the interactions that you've had in the youth game, do you see some maybe patterns, if you will, for parents who get it right, who have kind of figured it out?

Well, it's so interesting what you just said there, I think is a follow up there, Skye. You're saying it is hard to watch your children struggle. I have two children of my own and they have their challenges too. But if you look back on your life, or in the life of very successful people, they all have these challenges and struggles. And everyone has these setbacks and it's up to the player I think, and the person to get over those things. And I think like you said, there as a parent just be supportive, don't avoid the challenges. Don't try to rescue it. Don't blame, don't look to point fingers at coaches or look to compare your child with somebody else. They're on a different journey.

I've known players who have real struggles, whether it be emotionally or physically, or from a playing ability standpoint, and then suddenly find their pathway and find their way. And, I think the thing I would say to parents is yes, be supportive. And again, I've known parents who are very quiet and less involved. And I've known parents who are unbelievably involved, and their children come through somehow, or don't. But I think in the end, the advice I would give is that every player, every person has their set of abilities. Some of them are super strengths. Some of them are weaknesses that may never even improve. But, the reality is as long as we are helping them to be the best they can be every single day.

Are their behaviors the right behaviors? Are they challenging and kind of have this positive tension? So positivity, but there's a tension to improve. There is a difficulty in circumstances. And I think what I would advise is that in our yearning to make these young people's lives more comfortable or more successful on the day, maybe look past that to the longer term and say, "Maybe these challenges and difficulties are actually a great thing." You know, sitting on the bench can be a great thing for players, because if you're going to be a high level player, you're going to sit on the bench a lot of times, you know?


And so I think that preparing them for the struggles in a positive way, and keep pushing their behaviors, not comparing to anybody else.

I love it. You said a term I like. I haven't thought of it this way. You said maximize their tension to improve, or make sure that there's a tension to improve. Did you mean that a player should have a little bit of desire all the time to improve? Is that sort of-

All the time. And I think as coaches, as parents, again, I call it positive tension. And so, that positive vibe around them, the energy, the "don't be too harsh on players when they fail." Unless it's a lack of effort, which is going to always be a big problem, but then there should be that necessary tension. Kind of like light rope where, if it's too stiff, then they'll struggle and fail. But if it's way too soft and so your kid feels successful all the time, then they're going to fall because they need that difficulty.

They need the tension, they need the setback, the two steps forward, one step back kind of approach to this. And I think if you're going to be a high level player, and if certainly, if you're going to be a parent of a high level player, I think remaining quite even, not too high, not too low. And just keep encouraging hard work, keep encouraging enjoyment, keep encouraging that the player is doing their best every single day in every circumstance. And if that is happening, then your child will be the best they can be. And if they don't do that, then, they won't. It's as basic as that, I think.