A couple of days ago the perceptive and articulate (especially in relation to sporting matters), Peter Fitzsimons, threw his hat (or bandanna) into the twitter sphere ring of people commenting on Usain Bolt’s intention to swap his snug running daks for baggy soccer shorts. Fitz was less than enthusiastic about Usain’s prospects and offered a catalogue of sound reasons why the Jamaican hasn’t much chance.
While Fitz may be right, I thought I might throw up a couple of counter arguments that don’t appear to have gotten much airplay.
While its true that successful “code-jumpers” are rare beasts in professional sports and its pretty near impossible to name a single athlete, who has transferred to soccer successfully, I wonder if that argument rules Usain out. While its hard to name an athlete, who has successfully jumped over to soccer, I would add that I cannot think of a single soul who has actually made the attempt.
Conventional wisdom says, no!
As lovable as soccer is, it isn’t exactly a welcoming sport. The conventional wisdom is that if you haven’t been playing the game since you were weaned you better not think about playing serious football. You just won’t be good enough, the belief goes. It’s a highly technical and skilful game, don’t you know, and if you haven’t developed the skills by the time you reach puberty then you will never get it. Hmm. Maybe. But maybe part of the reason why nobody has ever successfully transferred to professional soccer is because professional soccer clubs have been just to stuck in their old soccer ways to give someone a go!
All my kids have played soccer, basketball and a bit of rugby. I have coached all three of these sports, on and off, for a little over twenty years, and I have seen hundreds of kids in their development stages in these sports. My personal experience inclines me to think that common views on what is possible and not possible in skill development and skill acquisition are not necessarily correct.
Plenty with less than adequate touch
I have seen dozens of kids who, despite years of dedicated coaching, have failed to develop a sound first touch in soccer. That doesn’t mean such kids can’t play. Some of these kids, with their less than mercurial touch, employ their speed, courage, strength, toughness, intelligence, vision, endurance and perseverance to be useful team members. I would imagine some of you might be thinking right now, “hang on… you are talking about kids… we should be talking about pro footballers.” True. But I could name (but won’t) dozens of players in the A-League (and even a couple of Socceroos) who have less than adequate “touch.” A first touch is very important but not having the best touch does not necessarily exclude a player from pro ranks.
The reverse of this situation can also be true. I have seen kids come into soccer relatively late who, within a season, are out-playing their more experienced teammates and opponents with the ball at their feet with ease. Some of these kids are naturally gifted. Others are just keen and work their arses off at developing the technical skills. However they do it, the result is the same. A player does not have to play the game for decades to develop technical skills.
I know a woman who played her first game of soccer at 29 for her local club’s third grade team. She was fast, tough, fit and had extraordinary endurance but her technical skills were awful. Within two seasons she had transformed herself from good surfer who plays third grade soccer to one of the first-grade team’s most valuable players. Her technical skills are still not the best in the club, but they are adequate, and this combined with her other athletic talents make her a potential poaching target for other clubs in the regional premier competition.
“Best players in the club” are some of the worst!
And then there are the technically talented players! My god, soccer is so full of players who can juggle like circus performers, stop the ball on a dime, dribble around the best defenders with their mercurial footwork and fail to see anything that is going on, on a soccer pitch. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have seen a supposedly gifted player, (in every league from local club through state leagues to national and international competitions), working miracles while staring at the ball at their feet while unmarked teammates scream for the ball in frustration not five meters away. Some of the “best players in the club” I have met are, in my view, some of the worst!
What about Usain, himself? The assumption seems to be that the bloke has no technical skills. Is Usain a stranger to the round ball, or is he like lots of other soccer lovers, and has been balancing the ball off the end of his toes for decades? Maybe the bloke has technical skills. Maybe he’s not just a fast fella who wants to play. Maybe he can play. There are plenty of people who have been playing street ball, pickup soccer and futsal with their mates for yonks who have sublime technical skills. Maybe Usain is one of them.
In truth, I think Fitz is right. I don’t think Usain will make the grade. But I don’t know. There are lots of unknowns in the equation. I don’t think that its black and white. One thing I do think is that the Mariners should be congratulated for trying something different in a sport that is plagued by orthodoxy. I am so glad that they are having a go. I think Usain has Buckley’s chance of achieving anything in a playmaking role but, who knows. If Usain has a passion for putting the ball in the back of the net and has a knack for being in the right place at the right time, there might be a place for him at the Mariners. But, to a large degree, it will be up to him. As a man in his thirties does he have the mental energy and passion to work his arse off on the difficult path that is ahead of him? Only time will tell.