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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Ronaldo wins “Ballon d’Or” but sometimes set a poor example for young players…

No one can dispute that Cristiano Ronaldo is an outstanding soccer player—clearly he has been one of the most talented in the world now for many years. But his antics on the field recently were a textbook example of not being a real team player.

Ronaldo was visibly upset when Real Madrid teammate Gareth Bale did not pass to him in a game against Spanish League foe Espanyol. Bale was in alone on the keeper and opted to shoot himself.  He had set up a goal and scored himself earlier in the game, but this time the goalie made the save.

Yes, he could have passed to Ronaldo for a tap-in goal, but Bale shot himself. Whether Bale was being “selfish” could perhaps be debated. But Ronaldo immediately reacted outwardly, throwing his hands up in the air, clearly indicating for all to see (in the stadium, and those watching on television) that Bale had made a mistake—and Ronaldo was unhappy about it.

The home crowd picked up on Ronaldo’s outburst and booed their own player (Bale). Afterwards, Ronaldo indicated he and Bale had spoken and were “fine”.

 But one wonders how fine Bale is, having been publicly admonished and shown up by Real Madrid’s superstar player.

Ronaldo’s reaction is not unique in soccer.  In fact, these kinds of dramatic gestures, intended for everyone to notice -throwing hands up in the air, questioning virtually every referee call, diving, etc.- seem to be, sadly, part of the fabric of what is otherwise a great game.

The problem with that on-field attitude is that it sets a terrible example for young players. We all understand that young people—including impressionable aspiring athletes—learn from adults, including players like Ronaldo. And in cases like this, what they learn is that it is acceptable to criticize teammates out in the open. As a result, we can see, at most any local soccer field, a mentality that shows itself in players at even the youngest ages acting out just like the professional stars.  They talk back to the referee, admonish teammates for a poor play, throw their hands up in the air and constantly dispute calls.

On a youth team, this tends to create a toxic mentality that erodes a true sense of team, trust and togetherness. It can also create a climate of blame—which is a harmful attitude that can infect a team and it difficult to get rid of.

If the coach at the youth level allows a culture where players throw their hands up in the air and show up teammates for every perceived mistake, eventually you end up with a roster where only some players feel comfortable on the field—and on the ball.

Players make mistakes all the time in sports. Decisions are made in an instant. Whether Bale, in that instance, should have kept the ball or passed it is debatable. But it was not worthy of a teammate’s over-reaction, as frustrated as Ronaldo might have felt in the moment. Bale had to make a quick on-the-field athletic decision.

Ronaldo, however, did not have to react the way he did. And when this type of thing happens at the youth level, the potential impact is devastating.

The opportunity for youth coaches is to take a ‘snapshot’ of moments like this one and explain to their players that Ronaldo’s reaction is not the way a team should operate.  Decisions and perceived mistakes are part of the game, especially at the youth level. Players only get better by trying things and being allowed to build their confidence. If they are belittled for every decision they make on the field (by coaches or teammates), it will be near impossible for them to gain the confidence needed to improve and help the team.

As an adult and a highly paid professional, Bale may not be affected long-term by Ronaldo’s actions, but we can’t say the same for those who play the game at the youth level when they are on the receiving end of that kind of treatment. Some kids never develop the confidence needed to be their at their best; others simply leave the game, which is a shame.

On any team, your “best” and most talented players also need to lead by their behaviour and the example they set. One way a player “leads” is by being a true team player and supporting teammates, not criticizing them constantly.  And a team player won’t publicly call out a teammate on the field of play.

At the youth level, it’s up to parents and coaches to instill the right kind of attitude in youngsters- and set the right kind of example by their own words and actions.

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