How Reading Can Make You a Better Footballer
It was Italia ’90. Scotland’s hopes were high. For a change, we had drawn a decent group for the World Cup: Costa Rica, Sweden and Brazil – in that perfect order of increasing challenge. Fair enough, we had nae chance against the seleção, the three-time world champions, but surely we would beat Costa Rica in our opening game, then it was do or die against Sweden.
But this three-act structure became quickly muddled. A shock 1-0 defeat against Costa Rica on the Italian Riviera plunged Scotland’s fans into the depths of despair. Watching, as 10-year-old boys, we processed our hurt the only way we knew how: by heading out to play football in the park until near exhaustion.
From tea-time until gloaming, we threw ourselves into challenges, went on insanely unproductive dribbles, and thumped the ball goalward (before running off to retrieve it – hitter-getters). In our minds we thought, ‘If these grown-ups can’t bring success to Scotland, we’ll have to do it.’
Sadly, in the men’s game at least (Scotland’s women are going from strength to strength after their Euro 2017 qualification), my generation has failed in its quest to bring some long overdue joy to Scotland’s Tartan Army. Therefore, the question for us now must be: How can we give Scotland’s boys and girls, men and women, the edge in international football?
I think I have the answer: books and reading. That’s right. Inspiring Scotland’s young footballers to read more will give our national teams a head-start on their opponents.
In fact, if you have a reluctant young reader in your life who dreams of a life under the floodlights, here are five ways to persuade them to practice will a book in their hand and a ball at their feet.
Reading is fitness work for the brain
So much of football training focuses on the heart and lungs. But mental fitness cannot be overlooked. The brain is the most complex organ in the human body and reading is proven to actively increase its power. If young players want to make better decisions on the pitch and quickly process their coach’s instructions, then they should read regularly. Think of reading as a brain fitness session. As the late, great Johann Cruyff said: “You play football with your head, and your legs are just there to help you.”
Need some tactical nous? Read.
11-a-side football is an intense experience. Problem solving while 19 outfield players swirl and shout around you is a massive challenge. Perhaps coaches could help their young charges to better process this incredible amount of information by setting them reading assignments away from the pitch. Each match of football is a complete story in itself. By reading, young players can take control of each moment and make this book a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’.
Concentration is key
It’s not just footballers for whom concentration is key. All athletes work hard to develop the ability to block everything else out and focus on the ball in front of them. Many of them work with sports psychologists to make this possible. For the rest of us, the most affordable way for aspiring footballers to practice the art of focus and concentration is to switch off their screens, and read a book.
Know what makes your teammates tick
Any international coach will tell you that they choose their squads based on personality as much as ability. Players who bring harmony and understanding to their team will be first on the plane to World Cups. Lauded and rich from a young age, some professional footballers can lack the ability “to climb into someone’s skin and walk around in it” as the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird Atticus Finch suggests we do. What Finchy (to give him his probable training ground nickname) is describing is empathy, and there is no better way to enhance your ability to empathise with others (and to become a better teammate as a result) than seeing the world through different people’s eyes in books.
Believe in yourselves out there!
A trait of professional footballers, which perhaps doesn’t come across on the camera, is incredible self-belief. To walk out in front of 60,000 people and perform to the best of your abilities requires a steel backbone. When the final whistle goes and you have risked it all on a game of pitch and toss, and lost, it takes guts to lace up your boots and step out there again. Reading will help any young footballer to build this resilience. When you read, you live the lives of many people. You rise and fall with heroes, then rise again. Discovering how different characters cope with different situations makes will make one’s highs and lows on the pitch easier to cope with.
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